The sun was long-gone-down. I curled into the red couch in the family room while John did his homework at the kitchen table, my old Martin guitar tucked against my chest, fiddling with the same simple chords I tend to use in every song I write. Sad, I know. I really am a limited guitar player. John is much better than I am now.
So I was sitting there playing the G chord, then the E minor, then the A minor 7th, bringing the bend toward sorrow that minor chords tend to bring if we rest on them long enough. The counterpoint melody flicked off the tips of the fingers on my chording hand and I could feel that emotional rise that told me a song was coming. I usually write in complete privacy, I’m sort of possessive that way, but for some reason this night I was comforted by having my teenage son a few feet away from me. I share with him, more than anyone in my immediate family, save perhaps my brother John, a little drill hole in the brain where new songs incubate. We do not necessarily create together much, but I know he understands the process and respects it. I sensed emotional safety with him there. Maybe my angels knew I would need him for this one.
Flexible Flyer is a song that took its own direct path of creation. I think it was my job to get out of the way. This is why it’s good for me to write late at night. I am tired, and the frenetic energy of the world buzzing about has settled in for a rest, so my mind is free. That portion of me that wants control is also weary, so it gets out of the way, too.
When I am really in the writing groove I have the most surreal experience with time. It’s almost like I hover over myself in a timeless place. I can go hours and hours without moving from my spot. I notice the chiming of the clock on the wall. It seems to dong constantly, though in any other portion of any other day it seems to tick slowly away, playing its music in regular well spaced intervals. For someone who generally struggles with ADD (minus the H…which I could sort of use at this point in my life) it is very strange for me to be able to remain so micro-focused for so long. I worked on this song intensely for about 4 or 5 hours. Everyone, including John, had gone to bed. Around 4 am I found a little hand-held tape recorder and recorded what I had written. This is typical for me. I record so I won’t forget, since I do not know the mechanics of writing music on paper. More recently I call my home phone and leave the song I am moodling on the answering machine. There are currently 7 or 8 snips of songs on our answering machine. I am running out of space for messages! Dave got me an iPhone for Christmas, so the most recent song I am currently working on is recorded on that, which should help matters here at home. I am just so dang disorganized I can never find where I recorded something and I discovered that I always knew where the phone was.
Anyway, I recorded on cassette the first draft of Flexible Flyer. It had come at me with such emotional intensity I was exhausted when the little demo was done. I set my guitar down and laid my head on the arm pillow on the couch. Tucked my knees up as far as my belly would let them come, and listened to the song I had just written. I laid there and wept . Wept and wept, like I am right now. I wept for that little girl, and I wept for that young father, and I wept for both of us as the people we became. I had written many songs before Flexible Flyer, and I have written many since, but none has served the kind of therapeutic release for me, as this song did. This song remains the only song I have ever written that came out intact. I have not edited, nor rewritten.
Someone once told me they really liked this song. They thought it was cute, and made them think about sledding with their dad when they were a kid. I smiled and thanked them. I guess its maybe like the parables Jesus used to teach. If people didn’t need the lesson, at least it was a nice story. But for those ready to dive deeper, there is more there.
We have, in some shoebox over at Gram and Libby’s house, a stack of little home movie reels from my childhood. When I was small there were no video cameras. There were no video’s, or DVDs; no YouTube. What we had, to preserve little moments in personal history, were these black and white home movies. We had to borrow someone’s projector and watch them on the living room wall. No sound. Just the running commentary of whomever was watching in the room with us.
I found that old movie of a winter day in Shelley Idaho, when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old. I’m wearing a little bunting snow suit, and my father stands before me as I sit on the front porch. He helps me put on my boots. The next portion of the film shows our dad, in his old letterman jacket and a checkered hat, running down Elm Street, a cigarette in one hand and the rope to the sled in the other. He stops sharply and my brother’s little body, lying belly-down on the bed of the sled, swings off the side with the intensity of the motion. Next portion of film gives us a large snowman, our little hands pressing snow into the bottom while Dad works on the top, the smoke from his cigarette swirling up above the snowman as if he has a pipe in his mouth. Then the film ends. Because it was film on a strip of celluloid, the roll flapped against the feeder as the reel wound down. Light flickered with the flapping film until someone turned it off, leaving the fan running to cool the lamp.
I found the movie in my head, because I had kept it stored there for years.
There was a little blonde haired girl, holding her arms up to her young father. There was a handsome man, reaching down to lift her. I knew he loved me. He called me his Sport. I could feel his love.
But time widened the small fork in the road of our lives. We moved to Pittsburgh. He spent more and more time away. He drank too much, and smoked too much. I learned the pattern of excess well. Good thing I am a faithful Mormon because, honestly, I think I would have the same issues. I have never had a drink, except for the occasional sips of beer Dad gave me in a Tupperware cup when I was very small. Something in me told me to stay far, far away.
For Fathers Day one year I made Dad a card out of construction paper. I traced my left hand and wrote this message:
Happy Father’s Day to Dad, my left hand nearest my heart.
One night, I don’t know how much time had passed, maybe months, maybe years, maybe days; Mom and Dad had a fight. Dad left. He came home drunk hours later. I could hear his car in the driveway. Worried that he might hurt Mom, I ran down the stairs and locked the front door. He saw me through the glass and yelled at me. “Open the door Cori. Come on, open it. Cori, open the DAMN DOOR!” I ran up stairs and buried my head under my pillow. Eventually I heard the muffled sound of his car door slamming, and the screech of his wheels.
I don’t recall how many days it was before he was back. I knew he was there because I could smell cigarette smoke, but his door was closed. Next morning I found the card I had made him slipped under my bedroom door, ripped in pieces.
Something in me, probably an angel who knew who I would become, told me to give it back. So I taped the card together and wrote a note that went something like this:
You better take this card back because I know you love me, and I love you. You can pretend you don’t, but I know better.
He never mentioned it to me.
Dad was gone off and on through the next few years, until one time he just plain never returned. My brother found him years later in Arizona, and worked on building a relationship with him. I figured he would find me if he was well, that he would beg forgiveness, that we would rebuild what had fallen over. I was not ready if he wasn’t.
I waited a long time. I still wait.
Flexible Flyer ends with this image: I am that little girl, giggling like little girls should when their daddies play with them. He tosses me up into the air, like playful daddies do, only I never do come down.
Floating there over your head
I’m a flexible flyer.
My father passed away a few years ago. The sheriff found him in his bed. He had left a manila envelope with my name on it with someone, either my brother George or Dave (who served as my mother’s attorney) to be given to me at their discretion. I don’t remember when I got it, either before or after his death. It would not have mattered. In it were two pieces of paper. One was a purple piece of construction paper taped together with crackling strips of scotch tape. The other was a letter in 5th grade handwriting.
One day, with Christ as the mediator, I believe I will find my father again. For now, I just float....
I found that old home made movie
When I was small and you were manly
That was a time you must have loved me
There’s the road we used to live on
A snow had fallen, soft and virgin
You paused on the steps and pulled my boots on
Now on the front room wall I see you running
A breath of smoke in some lost December
Twisting into the darkness
Higher and higher
Am I that girl in the eskimo bunting
I close my eyes and I beg to remember you
Pulling me over the snow
On a Flexible Flyer
My brothers raced you in the snowfall
Ducking down behind a snow wall
You raised your arm to rifle a snowball
Nothing more—a flapping picture
Nothing left but melted laughter
We lost the before, you offered no after
I close my eyes and I try to recall
The scent on your chin, your hands on my waist
Tossing me into the air
Higher and higher
Somewhere inside in a place very small
We’re a frame of film in suspended space
Floating there over your head
I’m a flexible flyer
Floating there over your head
I’m a flexible flyer