Thursday, June 5, 2008


I grew up in a part of the country that revels in comfort food. Several parts of the country, actually, but all of them united by a love of sweet tea; or was that a familial love more than a cultural one? (A friend's eyes lit up this morning as she talked about the tea she grew up drinking, the sediment of sugar in the bottom of gallon jugs.) Likewise, there's a kind of music that does the kind of soul-sustaining, basic work of sweet tea--or, for that matter, bacon--and tonight I found myself craving it. Musical comfort food isn't bubblegum; it has nutritional value; it's the kind of stuff that goes down easy while nonetheless putting you profoundly, not just superficially, at ease. Tonight it's Over the Rhine's 2005 album, Drunkard's Prayer, with Karin Bergquist's lilting, boozy voice assuring someone, "Put your elbows on the table / I will listen long as I am able." The song is overwritten by now--Karin and Linford, this is your fault, I'm afraid--with the history of a marriage's near dissolution and miraculous recovery. I can't not hear that narrative when I listen, but I also hear something else: the idea that when we talk, we're likely to be doing it at a table, in private or in public, with something caffeinated or alcoholic or more substantial (say, food) to keep us going; and that this--the coincidence of our bodies across the most elementary kinds of needs--happens whether or not our relationships are thriving, whether or not love is even the main thing on our minds.

Tonight I saw a friend (another friend, one with no relation, geographical or otherwise, to sweet tea) looking more exhausted than I've ever seen her--a long story--and I kept wondering how she even had the strength to raise her pint glass up to her mouth. But there we were, at a bar, buffeted by wave after wave of women--entire softball teams, I'm not kidding--and she kept managing to raise the glass. And there was some slim comfort in the mechanics of the gesture, in the rhythms of our bodies as they did nothing special but just kept on effectively keeping on, almost in spite of the substance of our conversation. It's that kind of bodily comfort that resonates for me, right now, with the comfort I take in Karin Bergquist's voice, as she sings "I'm looking forward to looking back / On this day," because it's not really the meaning of the words that matters--although clearly it does, clearly my friend must be looking forward to looking back--as much as Karin's voice, scooping and wheezing and opening those vowels out just when you thought they could only snap shut. Those vowels are addressed in a way that can't be reduced to the words they add up to: they are physically directed, present, sustained toward the listener. Sort of like a friend's body when, in the absence of consolation, all it can do is show up, keep company, raise the glass.