"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)
Thanks for your thoughtful column. I’m not sure what advice you can offer me, but I feel compelled to write.
I’m a happily married woman in my mid-40s, with three children ranging in age from 8 to 15. I am well-educated and work full-time in a rewarding job, and I feel very fortunate.
Twelve years ago our baby daughter passed away at 11 months, as her brain never developed properly, but she was never diagnosed. Long ago I made peace with her death and only raise it now because it taught me to appreciate the present.
I love my family dearly, and my children bring me great joy. So what’s the problem then? I worry that I’ve brought them into a world whose future holds overpopulation (for which I myself feel a bit responsible) and global warming. My children have such bright futures ahead, which may be completely devastated by these global crises.
I feel guilt at having brought them into the world, and yet I can’t imagine not having them in my world. I feel so hopeless that I am unable to make the world a better place for them. My happiness in the present is marred by my heartache thinking of their future.
How do I cope with these feelings?
Mom of Three
Dear Mom of Three,
Your heartache is the heartache of all parents. Let this heartache be with you and do not be unkind to yourself because of it. It is not only the heartache of all parents. It is the heartache of all humans.
All humans feel this same heartache as we see that those we love we cannot protect and that everything we know and love will one day be gone. We are all filled with occasional sorrow when we stop to glimpse the fact that all that is familiar and safe, all that is beautiful, all will be gone as we also will be gone and those we love will be gone, and all the torments also, all the things we are catching up on and taking care of, all the things we are dreading and disapproving of and wishing we didn’t have to deal with, all those things, too, will be gone, and all the evils we despair of and all the tragedies whose lessons we use as guideposts, all that will be gone, the lessons of politics and philosophy, the works of art, the music, the novels, everything will be gone. Everything. Nothing can outlast the ceaseless churning of idea and matter and time. And because everything will be gone none of this will matter, either, none of what I say or you say or what we feel, and that is the farther assumption, the one we often do not get to, that since we will die and everyone we know will die, none of this worrying will matter in the least, and so, if we accept that all this will be gone, we can accept that all our worrying is just the fretting away of precious moments, a vain and fruitless mental activity over which, indeed — and this is the important part — we have some measurable, demonstrable control!
Over the fate of the universe we have no control; yet over our worrying and our suffering about the future, we have some measurable, demonstrable control. We have methods. Why we do not avail ourselves more of these methods I do not know, except that to avail ourselves of them does imply that we know we will die and that time is precious and that there is nothing tangible we can do to stop the march of time. In other words, the fact that we do not do more to feel better in the moment may be partly because we want to prop up an illusion. It may be that rather than focus on our consciousness we prefer to pretend there is something we can do about mortality, that buying a new car or getting a new job will actually stave it off. We know better but still it may be easier to pretend. I suggest you surrender to your sorrow about the passing of everything, the transitoriness of everything, and resist the temptation to believe that what’s important is what our boss is going to say to us tomorrow, or how our children will be judged in their test-taking competitions.
Wow. I just said a whole lot. I’m going to continue, too, because life is indeed short and if I am lucky enough to have this forum I ought to just go for it. That’s been my belief all along — that so few of us writers get the chance to just hit the accelerator, to go long, when we get the chance, at a place as congenial and courageously risk-taking as Salon, we ought to go for it.
We don’t control the future or the past.
Though in our day-to-day lives we control much and our actions have many effects on others, we are also worked on by the world ceaselessly and we are its objects. We did not create ourselves and we did not create this world. We live in it.
Perhaps it will help, in your periods of worry about the future, to meditate on your lack of control, on your being as an object in the world. I remember one time when I was unhappy and somewhat fixated on things I could not control, the illnesses of my parents, the course of events in my family, someone I was going to for advice and help suggested I remember that I am an object in the world like everything else, that I am regarded by the world and embraced by the world, that I spring from the world and that as I walk down the street if I remember to regard myself as just a person walking down the street, and look around and see that I am just a person in the landscape walking down College Avenue in Berkeley, or a solitary walker on the beach, this helps me remember; I am not always the subject staring out at the world and shaping it, attending to its needs; I am also an innocent part of it, regarded by other humans and also regarded by the trees and animals and other non-human members of this world, that I am regarded as insignificant or only of mild interest by dogs, that I am looked upon with suspicion by cats, that trees shade me with indifference, that tiny worlds of microbes regard me as a useful host, that I will pass out of this world eventually and not be remembered and so would my children and their children, that all of us will pass out of this world and if we could look at all the crazy things we do in the vain illusion of control we would laugh and perhaps we would shake our heads in pity and disbelief, too, at our capacity to know certain things and yet succumb to the illusion of control over the future and suffer because we cannot control the future and we cannot prevent the deaths of our children.
In regard to my responses to certain questions, it can be said that changing one’s attitude is not enough. For instance, in situations that require a physical change or decision, or separation or change in routine, it can seem evasive or misguided to suggest that the whole solution lies in changing one’s outlook. And I do sometimes err on that side. I am not a very practical person.
But in your case there really is nothing to do but change how you manage your own universe of thoughts. There is no job decision to make or person to be blamed. You must merely live in an uncertain universe with the rest of us and avail yourself of the same human artifacts as the rest of us, meaning programs of exercise, yoga, meditation, all the things that can bring a sense of well-being to you. For it is only this sense of well-being, of being attuned to yourself and others, that can help you maintain a balanced view of mortal life with all its terrifying uncertainties.
We cannot prevent the deaths of our children. They may die mercifully after us or they may die before us but in either case they will die just like we will die. It is no sin to be sad about this but we must accept it.
Who do we think we are? Do we think we are gods? We are not gods. We pass into this world and we pass out of this world and who knows about the rest? We come into this world powerless and unclothed, utterly at the mercy of our mothers and others who feed us and clothe us and that is the condition of our being. It is easy as we grow strong and get jobs to forget this essential condition but that is our condition, naked, hungry, powerless. It is especially easy to forget our condition of naked, hungry powerlessness when we ourselves repeat the dance and bring more people into the world and assume seemingly godlike powers over these naked, hungry and powerless beings whom we wish to protect.
Yet the savagery of time tears away at our illusion; the savagery of time wears away our flesh, our creation. The wind of time erodes our superstition and our belief in the permanence of what we have; the sands shift; the ground shakes and opens up and seas rise and fall; ice comes and ice recedes; species come into being and pass out of being; we put vast acres to pasture and vast acres to farmland and we kill off predators and poison bugs and fungae and our poisons leach away and flow away from us and we try to forget about it but our poisons go into the aquifer and people eat our beef and our cauliflower and everything is passed on.
You are holy and the world is holy but the world is a whirlwind and we are thrown about by it.
You will be forgotten. I will be forgotten. This whole thing will be gone. Yet I think that our consciousness will remain. This I have experienced firsthand. So I am not worried. Nor am I as crazy as I used to be. I am merely more certain that I can do nothing about anything. Today I will go to get my 18-month MRI to see if cancer has returned. I don’t think it will. But what do I know? Next week I will find out if it has returned. I don’t think it will. Doctors don’t think it will. But what do any of us know about that?
So we go on, we come into this world and we go out of it into other worlds. We do the best we can to protect those we love but the world has us in its savage embrace and sometimes it will squeeze too hard and we will suffocate, and sometimes it will forget and we will be cast out into the wind. We aren’t much more than leaves sometimes. We aren’t much more than mud, or cows, or dung, or fences.
Except we are capable of knowing all this. That is what makes it hard. We know this. And we are capable of so much policing and so many antibiotics and so many halls of justice and institutions of world peace! We are capable of so much poetry and music! And so we should make poetry and music and we should eat and have festivals, we should walk the streets with joy and contentment when we can find it, because all this is slipping away fast. It is there and then it is gone.
Please sit with yourself and regard yourself as just another person in the embrace of the world.
Meditate on these things. Just meditate. Just sit and let these things enter your consciousness, and if there is strife and conflict in your relationships with your husband and your kids, see what you can do to lower the conflict. Let them be. They are going to go. They are beyond your control already. You are just a passenger now.
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)