#262: Crosby, Stills & Nash, "Crosby, Stills & Nash" (1969)

I am sweating, even in the shade of palm fronds and hundred-year-old banyans. I’ve been in Florida less than a week, and every day I measure change in myself by freckles and the contrast between my gently tanned skin and scars. These are small changes in the context of my life lately, but I like the concrete measure—a version of proof that now I am different. In three months, I’ve been rattled with loss of love, a shared home, meaningful work, and I’ve thrown my last few dollars at my ever-tricky body, coded to stumble in one way or another. And I have also chiseled deeper into love, feeling new, happy shocks. I have access, somehow, to joy, accepting its complex harmony with pain. So now I am different; afraid, grateful, and free.

I am visiting Florida, where green attaches itself to everything, with my family. My brothers and I are living out of suitcases, tucked into free corners of a house that tries to support all of our feelings and noise. Every day we call to a machine with a name, Alexa, asking her to play the wintery albums that used to scratch across the record player of my childhood—my parents’ childhoods, too. It doesn’t feel like January here, even with Crosby, Stills & Nash. There’s so much color in this strange winter of my life, and it’s like I’m hearing these songs my parents have always hummed on snowy mornings for the first time.

I am barefoot and the tile is cool and the beautiful bird my grandmother calls a Brown Egret is cawing on the other side of the sliding glass door. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is on and I almost cry, because it’s one of those moments where a song feels expressly made for the moment you’re hearing it. I fixate on harmonizing under my breath, only getting it right, appropriately, on what have I got to lose?

I play it again and again until finally someone says, “Haven’t we already heard this one?”

I say, “Haven’t we heard them all?”

When the record goes on, I get dizzy retracing my so-far life. I wish, like a record, I could play it backward to hear some kind of essential, veiled message. In my mind I walk backward, encountering different truths I’ve known. I watch so many people I love disappear and others reappear. I trace my life back until I too disappear, imagining the parts of me that hid out in my parents until they made me. Dad’s teeth; the joints of Mom’s thin fingers. I follow them to their own childhood bedrooms, a few miles apart, both listening to this record. It’s so comforting to imagine a time when I wasn’t material—when I had no mass. A time before I could be measured.

I tell my mom I can’t stop hearing the word free on this record—that I feel like it’s in almost every song. She says the word she hears over and over is morning. When “You Don’t Have to Cry” starts, in the morning when you rise, I laugh to myself. I close my eyes and wait for a word to stand out and give me the jolt. Even though they sing cry what feels like a hundred times, all I really hear is telephones. I’ve always loved the word telephone in a song; something about voices jumping across long distances gets me.

It’s funny how much has changed in my lifetime. Analog, gone digital; frequencies, now zeroes and ones.

Through sunglasses, I squint at a quick wispy cloud passing over the sun. The light refracts a greenish halo. I learned a little about the science of light refraction this week, but I can’t know it as anything but voices of the angels [ringing] around the moonlight. I ask Alexa if she can please play “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and my grandmother, shuffling cards, says: “Don’t ask her, Elise; you have to tell her to play it.”

I think about why we shriek in frustration at a disembodied, named voice; why it feels dangerous that she can’t play a song if I ask instead of demand. Because I don’t ask her to play it again, she keeps on with the rest of the album: “Wooden Ships.”

I resist the urge to ask my Dad to tell me more about the physics of ships like I normally would, because I anticipate everything that might sting these days and I am afraid to hear the word displacement.

Even though when this album echoed through my childhood home while we made pancakes on snow days, it isn’t until now, hot noon in Florida, that I realize many of these songs have warm winds, islands, seagulls, and bays. It isn’t until now that I see the palm frond in the upper left-hand corner of the album cover, sneaking in. Every day I am learning that my conceptual association, what’s etched and encoded in my brain, can be modified. Maybe these songs live in my hippocampus, sparking snow, maple syrup, pops in the vinyl. I am adding, though, this breeze, this lizard scurrying across the pavers, and the chills I get, despite the heat, despite myself, during the line: Love isn't lying, it's loose in a lady who lingers, saying she is lost, and choking on hello.

I get the jolt, big time, for hello. I get it, too, for goodbye.

I am leaving this place tomorrow and I am not sure what’s next, but I scarcely need to remind myself that I am lucky. Not because of rabbit’s feet or heads-up pennies, but because I look around at the people I love and I love them. It’s loose in me.

The pool water is January cold and even though I try to wade in slowly, my brother pulls me in. On the top of the pool, I take a few deep breaths and try to teach myself to float. It takes a couple tries to relax and lighten, but after a few moments, I do. There’s no separating displacement from buoyancy—only in their harmony do we rock on the surface of dangerous, sparkling seas.

—Elise Burke