Sunday is gloomy
My hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows
I live with are numberless
Little white flowers
Will never awaken you
Not where the black coach
Of sorrow has taken you
It is another weekday morning on the mountainside and it has begun to rain.
The goats are clever, they escape wind chill and lashing wetness, huddle together under trees instead. I clomp about in my oversized rainboots, my borrowed rain jacket and balaclava, leftover from previous helpers at the farm. When you think of Jerusalem, you don’t usually think of rainstorms, or freezing cold. It even snows here sometimes. It is my turn to wake up shivering at sunrise and take the goats out on the graze. The dire weather conditions are perfect for melancholy and I am fighting with my faraway sort-of boyfriend. Gloomy is sunday, my hours are slumberless… da da da daaa da da daaa da da da duh duh…
I don’t remember all the words, but the crooning helps keep my mind off of my nose, which is cold, and my clothes, which are sopping, and my shower, which will be lukewarm, and the air after the shower, which will be the coldest thing.
I first plucked the song from a movie soundtrack: Wristcutters: A Love Story, performed by Artie Shaw and a full orchestra, with 1940’s-style theatrical flair. It entered my back-of-the-brain (save it for a rainy day) repertoire and now, here, with no Ipod and no one to hear me except for the goats, I bring it back out.
Soon there’ll be candles
And prayers that are said I know
Let them not weep
Let them know that I’m glad to go
I’m no Billie Holiday, but I sing from my stomach, where the soul nestles itself, and repeat each phrase over and over again until I stop thinking about how I sound and simply feel it, feel the
notes and words pass through me. Feel my voice change to embrace these bittersweet melodies, raw, letting the cracks show, so to speak.
Fast forward three years and I am in Portland, Oregon, where it is once again raining. I walk alone, at night this time, having traded my mountain goats for concrete streets. I am late for a friend’s concert and the moon is full: my head swims in its strange glow and I give in to mysterious lunar tendencies.
Unaccountably, the song comes on in my head, and as I sing, tapping into that rough and raw soul place, I feel like I no longer exist in quite the same reality as the people around me. The song protects me somehow, isolates me. I sing it aloud and, though my voice has emerged, entering and adjusting the landscape around me, c ontributing, now more than ever I feel like a ghost.
It is Halloween weekend. I sing like a ghost and wear clothes from bygone days, from an era before I was born. There is something about this song…
Death is no dream
For in death I’m caressin’ you
With the last breath of my soul I’ll be blessin’ you
And now it is December and the song comes back again. I wake up with strange dreams in my heavy heart: it is hard to wake up these days. A house full of artists, friends of friends, musicians, dancers has burned to the ground, taking some of those young souls with it.
A president will take office soon, an orange buffoon, whose campaign spewed fear, racism, hatred. The fact that this orange buffoon will soon be president saddens me less than the fact that the cultural conditions in which he could be elected, now, in this time, existed at all.
There are thousands of indigenous people and supporters protecting water, and thus protecting life, in below freezing conditions in North Dakota. A small victory has been announced today, perhaps even a halt to construction, but then again, information is scarce and conflicting reports state that the black snake of oil will continue drilling anyways, simply paying the not-so-hefty for them fine of $50,000 per day.
I cannot stop crying and because crying feels good, and because suffering with all this suffering is what I need to do today, I decide to listen to Gloomy Sunday. But when I plug it into google I discover so much more: a rare and strange history of this song that haunts me on cold days.
The Hungarian Suicide Song, it says. Gloomy Sunday was the soundtrack to hundreds of suicides. Or it was a memorial to Hungarian Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. I watch the film about the song’s origin: spoiler alert, dear characters die. “I think I understand the message of the song,” says one of the characters, “ Every person has his dignity. We get hurt, we get insulted. And we can stand it as long as we can hang onto one last shred of dignity. But if one bucket of shit after another is dumped on your head… perhaps it’s better to depart this world. To leave, but with dignity.” Before he is taken by the Nazis he tries to kill himself, but he fumbles and drops the poison: a free man’s last indignity before he rides towards his death.
The reality these individuals are stand-ins for, the indigestible reality of the capacity for human cruelty and injustice, sets the waterworks flowing again. It has begun to snow outside my window and my skin prickles with chill, and with the cold that comes from acknowledging the harsh and unbearable frameworks of modern reality.
The movie is over and I sob. The song was originally entitled, V ége a Világnak” (“End of the world”). But the world has not ended. Or it has, but only in the way that every moment is both beginning and ending, every instant passing has already passed. The world that began at the start of this sentence is gone now. The world that existed when I typed the “w” in world. The world didn’t end with the extermination of millions of Jews in Europe in the 1940’s. The world isn’t ending now. It is winter, that’s all. Things are harder this season. The sky holds less air: it is heavier. Harder to hold my head tall as I walk around. But I won’t hide, not now. There are people who need me out there, in the cold, where once there were only goats. Besides, in the end of the song, the Billie Holiday version, she sings:
Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep
In the deep of my heart here
Darling I hope
That my dream never haunted you
My heart is tellin’ you
How much I wanted you
So there, in the end, it is only a dream, inspired by the terror of love’s passing. It was only a dream after all. . .the song haunts me still. And the world continues not to end. And I fend off this feeling like I am just some future history’s ghost.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Sara True is visual and performance artist, writer, and world traveler. Her writing has been published in 805 Lit + Art Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic, and on other platforms. She hails from Los Angeles by the sea and currently resides in Portland, where she constantly reckons with the reality of rain. Her artwork can be found online at saratrueart.com and she posts on Instagram as @saratrueart.