"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I had a little nervous breakdown last spring. Or maybe it was an identity crisis. I couldn’t figure out how I could be a mother of two young sons (a 3-year-old and a baby), a writer and a happy individual all at the same time.
I knew I was going down when the smallest logistical decisions began to take on huge significance: Should I pick up my son from preschool before or after I go to the grocery store? Should I pump my left breast after feeding the baby on the right, or should I pump the right before feeding the baby on the left? Or pump a bit on both, then feed him the rest?
I was absolutely convinced that each question had a right answer and a wrong one. My days were full of hundreds of mommy pop quizzes. All day and most of the night I was cramming, trying to figure out how to make my life manageable. Happy, I figured, would have to come after manageable.
When I had my relatively brief windows of baby sitter-bought time to write, it was hard — nigh impossible — to stop the whirring, the list-making, the trying to figure out the right answers to myriad domestic dilemmas. This mind-set, which I call “tasking,” is not the most conducive to creative writing. In fact, I felt sure that tasking was killing the tiny bit of creativity my sleep-deprived brain might still be capable of, but I couldn’t stop it, couldn’t stop trying to figure out the answers that would lead to control.
It got so I was either gritting my teeth or weeping most of the day. It was very bad, and also confusing. I seemed to have the life I had always wanted — two beautiful and healthy children, a supportive husband I love, a good part-time teaching job and three or four hours a day to write — and yet I was miserable. Pretty much the only thing that always made me feel better was yoga, which I was doing sporadically, sometimes with my baby in Mommy and Me postpartum classes and sometimes by myself, which required leaving my husband with both kids at dinner time.
“That was the worst hour and a half of my life,” he said when I returned pretty relaxed from one class. Gradually, though, it became clear to both of us that whatever the hardship to my husband, I needed an extended break. I was desperate for a few days when I didn’t have to get anyone juice or change anyone’s diaper. And I knew I wanted to do yoga. When I called an old friend in desperation, she mentioned a yoga retreat in Colorado she had visited several years before, so I weaned my son and went.
Mothers of very young children don’t generally go away to do yoga for six days. As far as I can tell, they don’t go much of anywhere alone unless maybe a family member falls gravely ill, and the young mother is literally the only living person who can help. Or maybe there’s an extremely compelling business trip with an implied threat of dismissal if you don’t go. I can’t think of one mother of a baby (my son was 8 months old when I left) who has gone somewhere for herself and by herself for a period of days.
There was a lot of guilt involved in my decision to go. Here’s how I justified it: When I am feeling particularly bad about my parenting, I torture myself with the question “What will my sons be talking about in therapy 20 years from now?” I decided that the worst answer — the answer that would make me feel like the biggest idiot — would be: “My mother was really depressed when I was a child. I wish she’d gone on more yoga retreats.” Also, on the 10 or 12 occasions when I asked my husband if he was sure he could handle it all if I went, he always replied, “I can’t handle it if you don’t go.” I took that as permission.
- – - – - – - – - -
A staff member, Nehri, drove me from the Boulder bus station to the yoga retreat, which turned out to be an actual ashram — the Eastern version of a monastery. It was hard to settle in. I wasn’t quite prepared for an ashram since I had told my friend I wanted to go somewhere without a bunch of New Age religious crap. She had assured me that Alhambra was mellow, without an agenda. But I later realized that my friend had only been at Alhambra on weekends, when there were enough other urban and materialistic guests to outnumber the yogis and effectively dilute their philosophy, which I never quite figured out but could, if forced to, sum up like this: Detach from demanding people and your own desire for external success; walk around quietly, noticing things; and realize that humbling tasks like cleaning toilets are an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Unlike my friend, I got to Alhambra on a Wednesday and found myself the only guest among 14 resident yogis. At the group vegan meals, which were served on long wooden picnic tables, I felt as if everyone was staring at me, noticing how fucked-up and neurotic I am. At other times in my life, being fucked-up and neurotic has seemed kind of good, an interesting plus. At the ashram, I just felt like I was at negative-15 on the scale of relative enlightenment.
I felt judged, so I started judging back like crazy: “These are a bunch of
loser white people, mostly from New Jersey. Their parents named them Joe,
Anne, Susan. Now they want everybody to call them Manu, Niti, Sudha. Give
me a break.” The main guy, Swami Prabavananda, was an Italian-American from Detroit, originally named Caruzzini. Since no one talks about their past at Alhambra, I had to piece together quite a lot to figure out Swami’s origins. I learned that Swami started the ashram in the early ’80s, and he and his followers are Shivaists — a kind of cross between Buddhism and Hinduism.
I was curious about Shivaist beliefs and not always hostile. I admired the yogis’ peacefulness, except when I thought it was blankness — then it scared me. And I was desperate, sick to death of my own personal manias and definitely in search of a calmer, more spiritual life. So I asked a lot of questions. Here are the ones that seemed to disturb people the most: 1) What does your family think about your being here? 2) Is there anything you miss about the outside world? 3) If yoga is about a mind-body connection, why do all of the swamis have such big bellies?
The yogis didn’t seem to want to answer. I guess they wanted their privacy. Or maybe they could tell I had become the queen of judgment, and since they were trying to live a life of acceptance, they ran for the shrine when they saw me coming.
Part of the reason I was going crazy, why I had come to Alhambra in the first
place, was because I couldn’t stop judging. Primarily I judged myself, but there was still plenty of judgment left over for others. I wanted to stop the whirring in my mind, but I spent the first 12 hours there whirring on hyper-speed. The peace and silence seemed to egg me on, to silently scream: Fill me up,
fill me up with all the brain chatter you can muster! Finally, at about
4 a.m., I had my first revelation: Stop striving.
I never talk to myself like this — like an inspirational speaker who has
written a really bad 12-step book. I talk to myself in the
conditional, in questions, in if-then propositions:
Stop striving. And magically, I felt enormous
relief, and I fell asleep.
After I woke up, I moved back into my familiar conditional and analytical
internal chatter, but at a slightly less hyper pace. Stop striving did not
mean stop working, which was horrifying to me, which would mean I didn’t
get any time to think my own thoughts, to write. Stop striving meant stop
trying to prove to other people that I’m a real writer, as opposed to what
I imagine they think — that I’m a mother who doodles around with cute, Hallmarky poems while her baby naps.
Nor did stop striving mean stop parenting, which is an equally horrifying and
unpleasant prospect to me, but stop trying to parent perfectly, stop
walking on tiptoe around my children for fear that I’ll do something
egregious, something my parents would have done — like spank.
And stop parenting guiltily, thinking I’m not giving enough to my children
if I’m not with them 24 hours a day. I am a writer. Nothing
makes me more unhappy than acting like I’m not a writer. Tasking around,
doing errands, dropping by the mall to see if there’s a sale on kid
sneakers — good God, just shoot me now if this is what my life has to be
Why do I say “has to”? Who do I think is forcing me to act like someone
I’m not? Some days, it honestly feels as if there’s a roving mother patrol out there
checking up on me, making sure I’m spending the requisite number of hours
doing the trivial shit that everyone else seems to think is so
important for kids’ well-being. Like buying matching Thomas the Tank
Engine napkins and plates for my son’s birthday party. I did this once, at
a place called Party Pig. The sub-50 temperatures maintained by massive
air-conditioners blowing interminably, the bad Beatles songs, the insane
amount of plastic, the depressed salespeople, the sugared-up wailing
kids — this is hell.
But still, I feel judgment when my son has plain yellow plates at his
party. Doesn’t he like trains? Doesn’t he like Thomas? Sure he does. But I think he also likes a mother who is not a
basket case. I actually think he likes that more. Of course, I could be
wrong — Thomas is pretty cool — but even so, I will never voluntarily go back
to Party Pig.
- – - – - – - – - -
The yogis would have hated Party Pig too — we had that in common. One yogi
told me the only thing she missed at the ashram was people, her friends
and family, who were far away. “When I go down to Boulder,” she said, “I
can never think of anything I want to do. I always come back early.” I understood this, or thought I did — how most of the things we get used to
doing in the world, used to filling our time with, will seem boring and
nonsensical, maybe even evil, after living a simpler life in the mountains
for a while.
Part of my crisis, the crisis that sent me to Alhambra, was a trivia
overload. It feels like there is so much stuff to manage, to buy, when you
have kids — Pampers, high chair, stroller, bottles, jars, toys, a crib, a
Porta-crib, car seats — and each of these purchases seems to necessitate
going somewhere horrifying, somewhere big and commercial with toxic smells
and bright lights. Baby Depot. Babies “R” Us. Li’l Things.
Later, when I first left Alhambra, I couldn’t stand to go to stores, to hear the
radio or see billboards or flashing lights. I completely surprised my
husband by commenting on the sound of birds I could hear in our backyard
and the luscious colors of the flowers he had growing. He has never known
me to stop and smell the bluebonnets.
The yogis say there’s too much static in the modern, urban world to clearly
hear your inner voice. I think they’re right about this, at least about
what had been happening to me. It had gotten so I couldn’t trust myself at
all, especially about how I would balance parenting and writing. And the
frustrating thing was I had actually worked this out pretty well before my
second son was born.
When our first child was about 14 months old and finally sleeping
through the night, things felt pretty good in our household — no one was
crazy, no one was visibly suffering, I was working some, my husband was
working some, and our son was being taken care of. I figured we’d just
merge our second son into the flow of things we already had going.
Instead, I was completely bowled over by how hard everything was again. I
felt demoted, back to my first terrifying, insecure days when my older son
was a baby, and my husband and I duct-taped his diapers on before we
figured out that it was the diaper cream on our fingers that was making the
diaper tabs not stick.
As a parent, you face these incredible challenges every day — logistical,
physical, emotional, intellectual — and in this acutely challenged state,
you have to somehow manage the unbelievable amount of judgment out there.
To make matters worse, most of the judgment comes from, or is
at least voiced by, other mothers. Would-be comrades-with-arms. Full
arms. And some of the most intense judgments I’ve felt — both coming at
me, and coming from me — are about really trivial matters. Do you use cloth
diapers or paper? Does your child go to bed at 8 or 9? Do you take your
child to Gymboree? Kindermusik?
During my breakdown, my mind was spinning, trying to figure it all out,
pick today’s 100 right answers. People, intelligent people, act
as if where your child gets his hair cut, what kind of aqua-socks he has,
whether you let him watch “Barney” are life-or-death issues. I got
completely caught up in the perfect-parenting frenzy, and it came close to
driving me crazy.
My husband always stops me here to ask: “Who? What people? Who, for God’s
sake, who?” And I don’t know. I can’t name names exactly. Well, if pushed, I could
probably name a few. I do know that I’m not entirely paranoid. Mothers,
even those who don’t know each other that well, always compare notes. This
is partially because parenting is so hard and everyone is desperate to
figure out an easier way. But it’s also because people want to justify
their own choices through comparison. We might be bad off, but at least we’re not using paper diapers.
Mother talk is often about accouterments rather than feelings, particularly
negative feelings like despair and anger. Things may suck, but there’s a
sick sort of comfort in seeing yourself as better, more wholesome and
committed, than the Pamper-wielders and formula-dispensers. Of course, different values have cachet in different circles. I happen to
operate in a very earthy, breast-feed-until-age-2 crowd, but every group
has its own pecking order, and it’s pretty apparent to each mother how she
is failing to measure up.
My second revelation at Alhambra was: Stop assuming criticism from other
people, especially criticism of my parenting. It’s hard, but I’m trying to
give myself the benefit of the doubt now. Unless someone actually says, in
so many words, “I have a problem with the fact that you weaned your son at
8 months instead of 24,” I assume they think I’m a great
mother. A stellar breast-feeder.
A commercial corollary to my revelation was: Stop going to stores that
make me feel nauseous. So what if I don’t get the best and most bargain-priced stroller? I can
use the wheelbarrow we already have and strap the baby in with the bungee
cord that’s lying in the back seat of our filthy car. Seriously, many of
the things we think are essential items for kids are not. And you can’t
buy yourself out of the stress of parenting, no matter what the slick
advertisements in those magazines in OB-GYN waiting rooms promise.
My last realization at the ashram, which might seem contradictory, is that I
love the world, all of it — greed, nastiness, mental illness, even shopping
malls. At least, I’m fascinated by it all, curious to figure out its
appeal. I don’t want to live in seclusion, even in the gorgeous mountains
of Colorado. I’m a writer, and the stuff of the world is my material.
I know now that I need to stop and smell real flowers, visit real
mountains and limit the amount of toxic gunk I encounter in superstores.
But I also know I don’t want to live in a monastery — literally or
figuratively. I keep wondering, in my truly nosy way, What must have happened to the
longtime residents at Alhambra to make them want to so completely renounce
the world? What sordid family dramas must have gone on in suburban New
Jersey? Dad trying to barbecue one of the kids? Mom whacking Dad with a
There’s a lot of stuff in contemporary life that can send you over the
edge. And an ashram is one of the better places to try to recover, as far
as I see it. I’m really glad I took six days out to calm down and try to
hear my own thoughts — schizophrenic as they were. And I’m glad I got the
hell out of there after six days. Being fucked-up and neurotic (in the
mildest, kindest sense of those words), and trying to figure out why, is
who I am.
Faulkner Fox is a writer in Austin, Texas. She teaches poetry at the University of Texas.More Faulkner Fox.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)