Ladies of the Present

I love listening to someone else’s favorite music with them. They know all the twists and turns and layers of context, and who the songs might be about. You really get to react together.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because Joni Mitchell is finally starting to make sense to me. I’ve opened up some of the pathways in my chest and my imagination, and I finally have the room to hear what she’s been singing. It’s not like I’ve never had a special Joni moment – I listened to “A Case of You,” after I got dumped for the first time, and she helped me realize that I was definitely going to be fine. This summer, I listened to “California,” as I watched the trees roll by from my seat on the Amtrak, and wondered what waited for me when I got back to Maine.

I like Joni mostly because she means so much to people who I’ve met along the way. Like my neighbor! We met because I saw a flyer she made looking for bandmates, must love Sleater-Kinney, cut out magazine letters and all. I obviously texted the number without hesitation, and we were delighted to find out that we live one street number away from each other. When the summer was becoming fall, we picked high-bush blueberries and got locally made ice-cream at a stand where nobody was wearing masks. When I meet people who know my neighbor, they always say, “She’s amazing.” She’s one of my favorite friends in this season of life, and we cook dinner together every few weeks, and keep tabs on each other.

My neighbor grew up on Joni Mitchell, so when I started craving her songs a bit more this January, I invited her over to show me her favorites. She brought Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm and Ladies of the Canyon. My neighbor acted as the resident expert, telling my roommate and I who all the songs were about, and how her mom got her and her sister each one Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas one year. “I do not remember a time in my life before Joni,” she told us before we put the needle down on Ladies. At the end of “Conversation,” with all of the surprises, I turned to my neighbor with my mouth open wide as layer stacked upon layer, and she just looked back at me like, “Oh, yeah, dude.” It’s so special to share the best part of a song with someone.

I think what’s resonating with me most right now, about Joni, is that she’s all about coming back to yourself.

Her gift to me, in this season, has been setting an example of departure and return. The model seems to be: go, explore, find someone you love, love them as hard as you can until you can’t anymore, come back to your window, get reoriented, go. She always comes back to her own perspective, self, and being, Where am I seeing this all from now?

Joni, to me, is irremovable from her Canadianness, from this first point of departure, probably because my Canadian family adores her. My cousin Kylie sits between my sister and I in age, and lived about an hour north of the border from us when we were all growing up. When we visited St. John, Joni’s songs would sometimes dance from our Uncle’s turntable. Most of the little snippets of her lyrics that I know, I heard first under someone’s breath in the Fox family’s cozy, split level house. The first time I ever heard “Carrey,” it was from Kylie’s guitar.

Whenever we had a sleepover, Kylie and I would share a room and tell each other stories until we fell asleep. When we were little, they were about anthropomorphic critters; and as we grew, Kylie’s stories moved from fiction to autobiography. Kylie is the kind of person who knows how to keep her heart open to life. She notices the world’s nooks and crannies with a songwriter’s grandiosity. I think she knows how to savor life like it’s a chocolate cake. This may be a byproduct of being raised on Joni.

When she started sharing the songs that she was writing, our visits would include a concert. We would gather around the living room and she’d pull out her acoustic guitar, and play the songs in her rotation, our Aunt Rossie chiming in to ask for “this one next!” It was a beautiful way of keeping up with my cousin, especially during a chapter of my life when returning to myself didn’t feel possible. Kylie set a good example. So, listening to Joni Mitchell alway makes me think of Kylie, who has the same gift for building a world for her feelings in a song.

Kylie and I finally got to see each other this November, after two years of lockdown, and stayed up in the dark until 3-ish a.m. telling each other stories, until we both fell asleep.

Top Five Joni Mitchell songs, ranked. (1) All I Want, (2) Conversation (3) California (4) Carrey, (5) Help Me.

playlist: songs by my cousin and this other Canadian.

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