Casimir Pulaski Day

This is a bit of mining my past. I’ve done that before in blogs, it usually turns out whiny. But I think this is different. Hope you enjoy.

I was walking in Oakland this evening, doing like I usually do and listening to music on my way to get a pizza. The song ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ by Sufjan Stevens came on, and I finally resolved my conflicting emotions about this song. The song itself seems very depressing, telling the story of a young man who loses his love to terminal illness. My memories of the song, however, are quite happy.

We had decided, for reasons I will not mention here, to take a short road trip from Carlisle, Massachusetts to Bristol, Rhode Island. I kind of told my Mom what was going on, just slightly edited minor details like the destination and who I was going with. She didn’t really need to know my girlfriend was with me, and she didn’t really need to know I was visiting a friend in Rhode Island who she didn’t particularly approve of. You know, minor details.

Anyway, before we were anywhere near Bristol, I got lost. Or, Mapquest got me lost, as I like to claim. The highway ran through Massachusetts, into Rhode Island, back into Massachusetts and then back into Rhode Island again, so the numbers of the exits restarted twice. I got off on the first Exit 2 (or was it 3…) and ended up in downtown Providence. Then, thinking I knew where I was going, I got to a point where I had no idea how to get back to the highway. My girlfriend Katy and my intrepid best friend Patrick were tolerant of the car meandering through Providence, if only because they didn’t know where we were either.

We got on ‘a’ highway eventually, and Patrick pointed out a sign going to Newport. We went that way because he knew where Newport was, and he had cousins there we could ask for directions. I later found out if we had stayed on that road instead of going to Newport we would have ended up in Bristol, but of course that hardly matters now.

We ended up at Patrick’s cousins, got out of the car long enough to stop the temptations of killing each other, and then headed on our way, maybe knowing where we were going this time. And then the song came on. Patrick had brought Sufjan Stevens’ album Come On Bring the Illinoise with him, and this song started playing as we started the car off towards our roundabout destination. That moment seemed perfect. The windows were down, the streets were quiet, and the sun was setting. I was holding a pretty girl’s hand while gentle guitar chords played in the background, and we actually knew where we were going. How does it get any better than that?

We did finally arrive at the house we were looking for (finding the house was fun too, let me tell you), and the night was interesting, for reasons I won’t describe here. We hung around the next day for a while (there was coffee, and there were bagels), and then drove home. I went to work that afternoon, and the trip was well and truly over, as well as the good vibes that had gone from becoming unlost the day before through most of the drive back the next day. It was the only significant time I went behind my parents’ back in all of my adolescence, and it was worth it.

But back to the music. It’s clearly linked to this happy memory for me, but the song itself is largely very depressing. But that’s kind of what I realized today. The song isn’t inherently depressing. The song is about two things: it’s about living in the present, and it’s about understanding loss. To a degree, it highlights, going back to where I was at the time, exactly what I did right and exactly what I did wrong with that relationship.

Looking back, we did a fairly good job living in the present. I saw her as often as I could, even after she had moved and doing so necessitated a 30 minute drive. I spent a lot on gas that summer, but it was completely worth it. Knowing how good things were, it’s understandable that I wouldn’t want it to end.

And that’s where I went wrong. To be fair, I wouldn’t have done anything different in that situation even in a ‘rational’ context. I was naive, and didn’t understand the changes that would be wrought when I went to college. I didn’t understand how much energy it takes to maintain the sort of connection I had at a distance of 600 miles. I was used to it being easy, and I never really got used to it being hard.

The song is about loss, and one of the reasons it so perfectly works for the moment when it came on is because of the message I understand now: You may know things have to end, you may understand that in the rational part of your brain. But that doesn’t change how you feel, and it sure won’t make that ending hurt any less.

I have no idea how long I’m going to be in Pittsburgh. But that shouldn’t stop me from reaching out as far as I can. To a degree, uncertainty can be better than a certain termination date.


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