It’s taken me weeks to get started on this.
No, that’s a lie, it’s taken me months.
That’s not to say that I haven’t tried. I’ve done the usual “writerly” things: I collected a drink of some sort and positioned myself in a comfortable chair. I opened my laptop and pulled out everything that I thought about Simon and Garfunkel and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and it came to nothing. Tiny fragments of prose strung together about my love for Simon or disapproval of his over-reliance on pastoral imagery, but nothing ever “worked” in that way our MFA and PhD and NYC and community workshops told us it should.
So this essay won’t be about Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel or Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme in most of the ways I wanted or planned. This won’t even be about me in many of the ways I wanted it to be. That’s probably a lie too.
This essay will be about giving up or what I imagine giving up looks like. About existing within a climate of failure or pressure to stop or, as Kanye might put it, trying to “move in a room full of no’s.” Regrettably, this is the only time I will mention Kanye in this essay.
I wish that was a lie but it’s not.
Writing, like music, is both created by and understood through the gestalt of our experience of it. I will never separate my first experience of Simon and Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” from the isolation of living as a missionary in Kenya for a year, thousands of miles from anyone I had called a friend. The raw vulnerability of Garfunkel’s final “Oh, I love you!” at the end of the ballad still resurfaces a loneliness so intense I can barely listen to the entire song, even though it’s just over 2 minutes long.
You may never separate your experience of this essay from the text message you just got where he tells you he’s leaving and that she makes him feel “real” for the first time in his life. You cry and keep reading because it distracts you from the other words and what they mean. You will forget everything the essay says and who the author is because none of that matters compared to the act of reading through your rage and panic and how could he do this to you? If you ever read this essay again, you will not be able to finish it for the strength of the memory attached to it.
That’s also a lie, unless it isn’t. There’s no way to know which it is.
In the lighter songs of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, like “Cloudy” or “Homeward Bound” or “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” Simon and Garfunkel celebrate listlessness and inactivity in a way that seems counter to their art. These are not songs about being musicians as much as they are songs about being cool or artistic or just taking a break or something. Songs about how doing nothing or escaping the need to produce can be much more desirable than creation or action. “Homeward Bound” even wishes for a “love” who “lies waiting silently for me” as a sort of catatonic object that has let go of all purpose outside of Simon/Garfunkel’s presence. The ultimate passive love for the upper middle class white man disenchanted with his toil.
But beyond the disenchantment is a longing for contentment, for an ease they don’t seem to have. In “Feelin’ Groovy” they assert (in the most positive way they can): “I’ve got no deeds to do, no promises to keep.” This unhindered, unrestricted engagement with the world seems to be the pinnacle of their inactivity. No rules. No difficulties. Just being.
My 2011 Master's thesis was a train wreck. There’s no other way to put it.
Living with pretty brutal OCD at that time and having an incredibly inflated ego rolled together to make the worst cycle of objective realist short stories I’ve ever born witness to. Dialogue revolved around banal topics, plots were hyper-ordinary, and character revelation arose through such minimalist avenues that it felt like I was choking my characters or readers or both. It’s hell to reread it, so I don’t.
The real fallout from this period was with my process. When I wrote with OCD, sentences had rules I couldn’t even explain and characters avoided distinguishing qualities until everyone was a vague clone of my psyche. State of mind, physical posture, even the place where I chose to write, hundreds of rules that I’m still unpacking years after finally shaking the OCD. How do you write when your process was built around a mental illness you no longer have?
I still don’t really know the answer to this question.
In many ways, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme is an album that wrestles with giving up. In a context of war and the backlash against the Civil Rights movement and Bob Dylan plugging in his guitar and giving acoustic folk the finger, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sat down and made a record that at times feels more like a collection of Wordsworth’s poems than a protest album. The first song, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” was even largely based on a traditional English folk ballad. Of course, Simon and Garfunkel counterpoint the 17th-ish century vocals with lyrics about soldiers polishing guns, killing, and fighting in a war that they no longer understand, but the instrumental and lyrical cores remain mostly intact.
On their own, the traditional lyrics are steeped in inevitability and failure. In them, the singer instructs a former lover to complete a series of impossible tasks: making a cambric shirt without sewing, reaping a field with a leather sickle, and finding land floating between water and sand. Once these are done, she will be his true love again. The counterpoint lyrics are similar, but take an opposite approach to inevitability. Simon and Garfunkel don’t describe impossible tasks for the soldiers but tasks they wish were impossible, and America becomes the former true love who lost our trust through abuse and warmongering. The civic relationship is as dead as the romantic one.
After 20+ years and two and a half degrees worth of working on my fiction, I gave up on writing entirely this year. Why doesn’t matter.
That’s a lie: why is all that matters even though I can’t exactly tell you what the why is anymore. I can only gesture around me at something off in the distance or in the next room or the basement of the building or inside me. At feelings like the desire to vomit and a sadness that settles into your marrow. Words like juxtaposition, ontology, and brick. Synesthetic groans. Oceans of profanity. Gestalt.
Maybe it was the years of slogging through workshops where I couldn’t explain why my writing was so bad because I didn’t even recognize the OCD, followed by years of rebuilding my brain and self with even more bad writing. Maybe it was having no one to tell me “Yes” about my writing during the time when I needed that the most. Maybe I’m just realizing that this was never really my thing. Regardless, I am an empty vessel. I feel the wind reverberate through my opening. I hum as it passes me by.
Simon and Garfunkel describe this in “Patterns”:
Like the color of my skin,
Or the day that I grow old,
My life is made of patterns
That can scarcely be controlled.
Or maybe this all has more to do with Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill and that boulder always rolling back down the moment he gets it to the top. Sisyphus remains determined to keep going no matter how pointless his task becomes. Albert Camus even calls him an absurdist hero for his relentless existence.
But what if he doesn’t keep rolling that boulder? I know the myth, I know he has to, but what if he doesn’t anyway? When does the boulder and hill become so a part of his essence that he could leave Hades and wander around Greece and still be watching that boulder tumble back down?
Friends might say, “Look, Sis, you got out of there, right? You aren’t stuck trying to get that boulder up that hill anymore. Everything is better.”
Or, “C’mon, Phus, you’re a good boulder roller. You can roll a boulder any time you want even if you aren’t in Hades.”
And he’ll smile and drink his coffee and never be sure which parts are lies and which parts are true.
Giving up isn’t always an easy prospect. I was once given a model car at a Christmas party. I opened the box and read the instructions and fully intended to put it together, but I never went to the store to buy the paint or the glue, so the car stayed in pieces in its box. Even long after my connection to the gift-giver had faded to the smallest of dots on the horizon, I avoided throwing it away because I hoped I would finish something I had never started. I kept the car because giving up the car was giving up a part of myself that I didn’t want to see die, as melodramatic as that may sound. I would cut off a possible future, however small, for myself if the car went in the trash or I gave it to someone else, and I resisted my limitations. I’ve seen this melodrama play out a million different ways in myself and others, but the motivation is always the same: fear of limited identity.
Simon and Garfunkel resisted their limitations as well, though in a more significant way. They resisted the impending changes to music brought on by Bob Dylan in their song “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd Into Submission).” Mocking Dylan’s trademark sound and style, they unintentionally produced one of the most dynamic and interesting tracks on the album. They resisted narrow definitions of art in “A Poem on the Underground Wall” where a man spray-paints profanity on a subway wall and runs away, describing this event with an elevated language that clashes with the vulgar punk aesthetic of the graffiti. They resisted high art replacing human connection in “The Dangling Conversation,” a song that sometimes reproduces the elitism that it seeks to critique through its name dropping and diction. They resisted and resisted even though they admit that fighting the tide and making change is rare, if it’s even possible at all.
Or, as they say in “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall”:
So I'll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall.
I threw the car away several years ago. I haven’t even thought about building a model car since.
Simon and Garfunkel eventually called it quits as a duo for the usual reasons. Simon became a hugely successful solo artist and Garfunkel sort of acted for a while and they both eventually got back together and toured and made more money than any of us will see in our lifetimes. But in the midst of their careers, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme sits as a sort of nucleus. At times equal parts melodically rich and artistically pretentious, it is beautiful and dated, irrelevant and timeless, light and sad, postmodern and formalist. Like its final track “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” which layers news reports over the Christmas song “Silent Night,” it’s a series of conceptual and musician pairings that can be clumsily obvious and incredibly profound. It is an album I love as much as it irritates me, one I never and always listen to. A boulder and a hill. Simon and Garfunkel.
It’s possible I’ve lied again.
Maybe I still managed to talk about Simon and Garfunkel in some of the ways I’d hoped. Maybe something crept out of me that I needed to say about myself.
Maybe I can dig that car out of the trash.
Or maybe that’s also a lie. There’s no way to know which it is.