“Open your eyes/ Leave it all behind.”
-Van Halen, “Light Up The Sky”
For the past week, I’ve been obsessed with Van Halen II. As its name suggests, it is the band Van Halen’s second album, released in 1979, when I was five years old. I own it on cassette, but it is buried in a storage room at my condo, which is currently undergoing repairs. I am on the other side of the city staying at my sister‘s house where she lives with her husband and two boys.
In any case, I can’t get seem to get Van Halen II out of my head. The *ting* of the bell of Alex Van Halen’s ride cymbal before the guitar solo on “ Outta Love Again.” David Lee Roth joyously celebrating the charms of “Beautiful Girls.” The falsetto “Oooooh….baby,baby” on “Dance The Night Away.”
My brain jumps from one song to another over the course of the day polishing them over and over in my head. Regardless of the song though, the conclusion is the same: Van Halen II, I have decided, is the most perfect collection of music ever recorded. I want to marry this album. I want to buy a house with Van Halen II and bear its children. I want us to travel and grow old together. I want to lie in a hospital bed bathed in the golden light of the setting sun with a cracked cassette copy of Van Halen II holding my hand from a bedside chair.
Oh, and in other news, I’ve also decided to move to the mountains to become a monk.
Not that THAT has anything to do with anything. I only mention it because my Van Halen II love affair began the morning after I let the visiting prior of our group know my intentions.
It wasn‘t a graceful moment. Reverend Master was leaving for Vancouver early the next morning, so I was on a deadline. Except that because he was leaving the next morning people from our group were hustling and bustling about saying goodbyes and asking him last minute questions and wrapping up final travel arrangements for him.
I lingered for a while, and when no perfect moment arrived, I settled for the one I had. I ended up half muttering to him in the hallway outside the upstairs kitchen, “I think I want to be a monk.”
I’m not sure why, but after I said it, I felt afraid. I was overcome by a embarrassment, like I had admitted to wanting that was above my station. I felt like a child putting on his doctor father’s white coat and stethoscope and asking if he could come to work and perform open heart surgery.
I’m not sure how I expected the monk to respond. I thought he would say something like “are you sure?” or “Give me a call and we’ll talk about it” or even “hmmm.”
Instead, he did something I did not expect. He hugged me. Then he said “Okay” a bunch of times, not so much like he was approving a request but like he was a trying to calm a skittish horse.
He told me to hold my desire to become a monk lightly, and then we all tromped out the door. The last thing he told me was to get in touch.
Another monk, several weeks later, told me a similar story about his own experience expressing his monastic intentions. Like me, he blurted it out and didn‘t know what to say next or how the master would react. He described a similar sense of shock at hearing himself say the words, like he had just opened up a box and presented the world a gift so offer it . The next day, he told me, he and the Reverend Master went for ice cream.
I did not go out for ice cream. Instead returned to the guest bedroom in my sister’s basement. There I lay awake listening to a frantic little man inside my head throwing open filing cabinets, scrutinizing fine print, and scattering documents around the inside of my skull, looking for a reasons why I had made a bad decision.
He found nothing. I don‘t know how big or small a gift to the world my becoming a monk is, but I know it‘s something an offering I‘m willing to make completely and wholeheartedly. My brain is anxious, but my heart is at peace, and nothing can change that.
Sometime later in the night, I wake up to the sound of my youngest nephew crying.
There is something about the sound of a baby crying in the night. My heart wants to lever itself out of my ribcage, climb to the ceiling via grappling hook, and shimmy like an action movie star through the heating vents separating the basement guestroom from my nephew’s room upstairs. It wants to find its way into his crib and burrow in next to him, heating him with its warmth while beating a comforting rhythm. All is well. I’m here. All is well. I’m here.
When I come upstairs in the morning, my nephew is sitting in his high chair triumphantly waving his spoon. He is sporting a beard of yogurt and there is cereal in the wispy halo of his hair. His delight when he sees me lights the room like a tiny sun. We made it! We both survived the night! Terrible Dark Lonely Scary Tine is over!
When breakfast ends, I check my email to see if there has been any progress on my condo, which is currently serving as the rope in a three way tug-of-war between contractor, condo board, and insurance board that has slowed my condo repairs. I play Dinosaur Hotel with my four year old oldest nephew in a box that once contained a washing machine. Half an hour later, the boys are packed up and gone with their family and I’m by myself in the house thinking of impermanence.
I’m not thinking of impermanence because I want to be a monk. I’m thinking of it because children--with every whiplash mood change, spilled plastic cup, or unexpected interruption--are a living reminder that impermanence is all there is.
My sister’s house is not like my condo and not just because her bathroom ceiling is water-free and not in need of replacement. My condo is mostly bare and no one but me ever goes there. My sister’s house is filled to the brim with things and also with life.
Now, with everyone gone, well, the house remains a mess, but with the kids gone, it’s a strangely still mess. Dinosaur Hotel, its cardboard walls marred with slashes of crayon stands crookedly in a patch of sunlight. Toys are scattered across the living room like stones in a Zen rock garden. Even the used tissue on the table assumes the quiet dignity of a fulfilled purpose. It’s chaos, and everything is in its place.
I’m filling the sink to do the dishes when a fragment of song breaks loose from some forgotten place in my memory and bobs to the surface of my mind: “I‘m a spark on the horizon.”
It takes me a few moments to identify the song: “DOA” from Van Halen’s Van Halen II. A crack in the cement dam in my unconscious.
The dam bursts and the rest of the album pours through.
* * *
It doesn’t last forever. It goes on for nearly a week, but…well, impermanence, remember?
But Van Halen II isn’t alone. No sooner has it faded than another music or movie obsession arises to take its place. Sometimes it lasts for moments. Other times each piece holds me in its grip for hours or days.
Gretchen Goes To Nebraska by King’s X. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid Maad City. I spend an entire afternoon deciding I’m going to watch The Big Lebowski every day until it‘s branded into my brain. That way, when I‘m at the monastery, I can secretly watch the movie in my head whenever I need an escape.
My obsession right now is the Dixie Chicks album Home. My brother-in-law was playing it while I was sitting at the table with the four year old helping him cut paper and when “Travellin’ Soldier” on, I grew suddenly misty eyed.
Forget all that other music. Home is the most perfect album ever recorded.
I’m still thinking that ten songs later. I’m sitting in the chair by the front window. The baby is standing in the middle of the living room in his green one-piece fuzzy pyjamas with his hands in the hair while he turns in circles to make himself dizzy.
I don’t need to go to the monastery. I don’t want to go back to my condo. I don’t want anything but to watch this boy turn in circles forever while “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” plays in the background.
Sorry, Van Halen. I was wrong. It was the Dixie Chicks all along.
This is all I want. This is all I need…to sit in this chair and listen to the sounds of home.