Thinking back now
I suppose you were just stating your views
What was it all for
For the weather or the battle of Agincourt
And the times that we all hoped would last
Like a train they have gone by so fast
And though we stood together at the edge of the platform
We were not moved by them
Be fifteen. Listen to a song on a tape your friend just got—she introduces you to “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen, on vinyl, that same afternoon—and have no clear sense of what the battle of Agincourt or even a train platform is. Wonder why he sings in such a funny accent but instinctively know that such an accent is cool. Also know that it’s about loving someone who doesn’t love you, or loving someone you used to love but no longer do, or about loving someone you should love but can’t, or someone you shouldn’t love but do anyway–but have no way to understand what any of that really means. All your ideas about love come from 90210 and Sweet Valley High and Pretty In Pink, with a little Anne of Green Gables thrown in, and you have no idea what you’re in for. The song might tell you, it might give you a hint, but you, of course, have no way to hear it.
With my own hands
When I make love to your memory
It’s not the same
I miss the thunder, I miss the rain
And the fact that you don’t understand
Casts a shadow
Over this land
But the sun still shines
From behind it
Be twenty. Be in love for the second or third of many first times, and cry a lot. Hunch behind your waist-length hair and carry a spiral-bound poetry notebook. Forget almost completely about this song, except every now and then to weep over the idea of making love to someone’s memory, which is a dramatically heartrending idea even for a virgin. (Still be embarrassed at the masturbation reference). Work something about love and memory and hands and rain into a poem, and read it aloud at your campus’ coffeehouse open mic night. Maintain the belief that the most noble thing in the world is to give yourself up, your whole self, for love: to give and give and give until you are emptied out in the name of your pure and beautiful love. Maintain the belief that no one understands you. Forget about the song again.
Thanks all the same
But I just can’t bring myself to answer your letters
Be twenty-five. Reassure yourself, angrily, that you could never not answer anyone’s letters. They wrote you a letter. That means they love you. Right? Right?
It’s not your fault
But your honesty touches me like a fire
Be thirty. Be restless. Be afraid to look into the future but know by now that the future will come, will engulf and enflame you, no matter what you do, so resolve—bravely, chin up–to try to do the best you can with the sense you have. Believe you will never fall in love again. Sing St. Swithin’s Day to yourself under your breath when you’re walking to the Sunday market or researching your upcoming trip to New Zealand. Know it’s just a song you’ve liked since you were a kid—it isn’t about you. (Maybe it is. Maybe it’s secretly a little bit about you—but are you the letter writer or the one who’s been set on fire?)
The polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love that we spoke of forever
On St. Swithin’s Day
Be thirty-five, and be very annoyed by your propensity to overanalysis. Sing this song to yourself on your way to the bus, or picking your way along long low afternoon beaches, or late at night under the stars, and just enjoy the way the words feel in your mouth. Be recovered, mostly, from much thunder and rain. Be unable to hit the high notes so go down when Billy goes up, and pretend like that’s how it’s supposed to sound. Don’t get too into it. At least try not to get too into it. Smile at the very 80s reference to Polaroids, and even to letters. Think that it just doesn’t have the same ring to say “I just can’t bring myself to respond to your Facebook message” or “I just can’t bring myself to unhide myself on Skype when I see you online.” Think about simplicity, about paring back. Think about getting back to basics. Walk down the hill on your way to wherever you’re going, and listen again to this song that’s been with you for such a long time: longer, it turns out, than anyone you’ve ever loved.
Lyrics to “St. Swithin’s Day” by Billy Bragg from Back To Basics, 1987. All lyrics are the property and copyright of their respective owners. All lyrics are provided for educational purposes and personal use only.