image: “Congo Square” by Adéwálé Adénlé
For Harold Battiste, Jr.
In New Orleans, I saw a reﬂection of myself in a stranger’s marbled tombstone. I turned away, but in every direction, rows and rows of graves stood tall: bright reminders.
I looked up and over the tombs and saw the building where my friend Harold lives, his windows facing a garden of stone and bones.
Harold used to tell me: “In my eyes, I’m already dead. I’m ten years older than my father when he died and twelve years older than my mama when she left here. They passed in the same year– Mama right after Daddy.”
Twice divorced, estranged from his children, Harold wanted to know: ‘Why am I still here? I ain’t got nobody.”
I attempted to reassure him, to convince him: “You still have much to look forward to, Harold. You’re only sixty-seven.”
But that old jazz artist, his dreamer wrestled down by his realist, slid me a half-smile and rattled off his health problems: diabetes, clogged arteries, arthritis. More debilitating than the illnesses, he said, was the sadness that follows him home at night, no matter how much joy he’d gotten out of the music while playing on stage at Preservation Hall or the university where his students idolized him.
He lamented about how he wakes at four in the morning— to no one, no reason, no urge to live. I fell silent, struggling to picture myself old and alone, remembering his words before my wedding: “You two make me believe in love again.”
It was hard for me— so shortsighted in my twenties, then— to imagine an elder yearning, turning over in his bed for another’s ﬂesh, another’s soul, really.
Years later, after my divorce, I lay alone in my studio apartment, watching plumes of incense smoke rise from my bare kitchen table and float to the ceiling. I remembered sitting in the audience watching Harold play his saxophone on a stage, Lake Pontchartrain at his back. His lips and ﬁngers translated tenderness through his instrument; his melodies penetrated me.
I followed the emotions traveling the terrain of Harold’s face. As he played one song after another, his eyes, catching something in the distance, grew wide, wider, and then set. From the middle of the crowd, I turned to see what he was straining to see: a waiting lover— beckoning, promising, returning. Forming in the fog.
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)**
Formerly a newspaper journalist and high school teacher, Cassandra Lane received an M.F.A from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is an alum of VONA and AROHO and serves on the AROHO board of directors. She has published and performed stories and articles in a variety of venues, including The New York Times’ “Conception” series and the Expressing Motherhood show. A Louisiana native, she lives in Los Angeles and is the managing editor of L.A. Parent magazine.