I love end of year lists. I love the neat wrapping that tells me we can put a button on a year gone by, which is not unrelated to my love of endings and fresh new beginnings, however arbitrary; and I love the summation, the sense that things were accomplished, that in reviewing those happenings we assert our right to give them meaning. But personally all I ever manage at year’s end is a cursory backwards glance, and a summary that amounts to, “Well, that happened.”
Instinctively, however, I have one wrap-up, one neat bow that lands at my feet, usually unbidden, towards the end of each year; towards the end of each year, I generally realize some song is the song. Of the year; of my year. Some song gets so to the heart of the thing, makes me feel such a sort of way, that it becomes That Year’s Song. Thus designated, these songs, when heard, call those specific years and feelings to mind, and I cherish them.
This year’s song goes to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – one of my favorite artists and bands – with “Hope the High Road.” The song is off their album The Nashville Sound, and there’s a case to be made for calling the whole thing the Album of the Year, and an argument to be made for nearly every song on it. My husband and I sang “If We Were Vampires” together at our wedding, and featured a line from “Molotov” in our program. “White Man’s World” is a fairly obvious choice given the events of the last twelve months as they’ve unfolded, and “Anxiety” so poetically, lyrically captures the experience of losing out to the sensation of a fist wrapped around your heart, with caught and turned phrasing like, “You’ve got to give me a minute – cause I’m way down in it, and I can’t breathe so I can’t speak,” and contextually wrenching meditations like, “Wife and child still sleeping deep enough to dream.” It gets to the root of a feeling of a year in which my sense of time has collapsed under the urgency of the present lived moment. Everything is always happening, and I can’t breathe so I can’t speak.
But it’s “Hope the High Road,” released in March of this year, that gave me what I needed when I needed it, and continued to carry through and soldier on through the longest and in many ways most difficult and most successful year of my life, and cemented it’s lead when it was the first song the band played when I saw them at the Ryman in October for the venue’s 125th anniversary. From the early line “I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown – I myself am on the brink,” which has allowed me to laugh and scream and cry when needed, to “I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well – uninspired and likely mad as hell,” which allowed me to feel known and understood, to the later imagery of a crew of like-minded people possibly riding a sinking ship, but together and determined to go down trying, this is the song I rode out in 2017, the one that made me feel, all-importantly, less alone in this.
In 2017, I officially launched a business with my best friend, quit finally any semblance of a day job, and scraped together an actual living as a freelancer, writing and editing. I was interviewed for CNBC and a local society rag, named to a board of directors, put in uncomfortably close proximity to Matthew McConaughey. I married the love of my life; we dropped into the ocean that had apparently been lurking all this time just beneath us, and we found that the water was fine. I made new friends, held new babies, and I laughed a great deal.
But in 2017 Nazis killed a girl in my country, and confederate flags hung a little more boldly in my sweet neighborhood, and we suffered several of the worst mass shootings in history. My friends and I and people across the country fought tooth and nail for reproductive rights and safety for immigrants and LGBTQ people and families and the best we could do was hold the line and most of the time we were losing ground. Between climate change and racism and sexism life got worse for a whole lot of people, and mine is not as simple as a white person’s empathy – I am a queer Jewish woman who lives in the south, and I know that it can get much, much worse.
So I hoped the high road. I looked for the best in people and moved on if they couldn’t offer it because we can’t waste any more time. I gave money to good causes and I danced at my wedding to the sweetest man I’ve ever known. I snuggled my dog and yelled at the vice president’s dumb motorcade and called members of Congress and signed people up to vote and wrote some things that I liked and worked hard and drank some very fine and very expensive bourbons. From here I can’t tell what 2018 looks like, but I can start it for everyone else, as well as for myself, with both a wish and a blessing:
Wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again –
to a world
to live in.