THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE EMPTY SPACES:
DREAMS BENEATH THE RAINBOW
The Strangeness of Being
by “Eric in Silver Spring”
Sometimes in life, you feel so uncomfortable in your own skin that you spend long nights searching for a certain something to be revealed. Long after midnight, in the blueness of your bedroom, you remain restless, waiting for a sleep that just won’t come. There are times when you’re just trying to find a way to get through the day. If you’re lucky, something extraordinary passes through your life, even if it comes as quickly as a gust of some restless wild wind that comes out of nowhere and then disappears in the trees. And something within you changes. You know it is special because it affects your consciousness and awakens something very primordial in the emotional and spiritual core of your being. For me, that something is Eva Cassidy.
At some point, we’ve all experienced feeling lonely and disconnected from everything. During my blue moments when I feel very alone, sitting in my quiet and empty house that is as empty as I feel, Eva’s music helps to fill in the vast spaces of my unfulfilled dreams and false starts in life. I feel very lucky to be here at this moment in space and time in the universe to see the incredible impact Eva is having on the world.
There are others who have a greater command of the language than I. They can better articulate for me what I know or how I feel. But I have the urge to speak using my voice, my words, not somebody else’s. So this is my voice and these are my words. The words in this essay are my thoughts and blood, something other than viscera. This is best I can do for someone who has given me something special in such abundance that I could never return an adequate gratefulness in kind.
I’m fortunate to have grown up in the same area as Eva (actually, in Montgomery, the next county over). I never met her but I have had the true pleasure of meeting people who were close to her. However, I carry with me the sadness, like a lot of us, of never having seen her perform, never meeting her. But to me she’s not an abstract figure like an historic figure you read about in a textbook. I’ll think about her when I go to some of the same places she’s been. I experience a wistfulness walking around some of these places, knowing that she’s come and gone and I missed running into her.
I can’t help but feel disheartened to have never come across Eva at Fatties in Rockville, Maryland. In the late 1980’s, I used to hang out in Rockville, visiting my brother and sister in law. They lived close by Fatties, about a ten minute walk from their home. I stopped going to Rockville when my brother and sister-in law were posted overseas for their jobs. I can only imagine us stopping into Fatties for a beer and seeing Eva play her first gig there. I can imagine us sitting there, our pint glasses of beer going untouched, absolutely mesmerized by Eva’s voice.
I’ve read where Eva loved to take bike rides out at Great Falls national park. She would ride along the historic Chesapeake and Ohio canal towpath. The C&O Canal runs about 184 miles from the historic Georgetown neighborhood of DC all the way northwest to the small mountain town of Cumberland, MD. The canal operated from 1828-1924 as a transportation route, primarily hauling coal from western Maryland to the port of Georgetown in Washington, D.C. At one point, the series of canals and locks were destined to link up to the Ohio River, but with the advent of the railroad, those plans died and led to the decline of the aquaducts. Today, it remains a scenic towpath full of joggers, cyclists, hikers, and even horse enthusiasts.
Great Falls is a national park that is divided by the Potomac River, the river that creates a natural boundary between the state of Maryland and Virginia. The river eventually empties out into the Chesapeake Bay which Eva was so fond of. According to the US National Park Service, Great Falls Park is where the Potomac River actually builds up an incredible amount of speed and flows through a gorge over a geologically jagged landscape. The Park Service also notes that the falls consist of turbulent rapids with several 20 foot waterfalls with a roughly 76 foot drop in elevation for about a 3,500 feet stretch of the gorge. They further add that the Great Falls of the Potomac display the steepest and most spectacular fall line rapids of any eastern river in the US.
Sometime in 1993, an old college friend of mine and I began hiking the Billy Goat trail at Great Falls Park on the Maryland side. It’s about a 4.2 mile hike over some moderately rocky terrain and the trail essentially runs parallel to the river for the most part. You access the Billy Goat trail from the C&O towpath and exit back onto the towpath when you complete the hike. There are always joggers and walkers and bicyclists on the towpath and I like to think that maybe Eva and some friends were riding their bikes when I was out there. Maybe they may have called out, "Passing on the left!" before riding past me. Sadly, if she had, I wouldn’t have known who she was anyway at that time.
My friend and I last hiked the Billy Goat trail in mid February 2002. We had a mild winter that year, but there were not too many people around the Park. A light rain fell, the million drops of rain bouncing off of our rain gear. I remember the park being very preternaturally quiet and rather peaceful. Even though the winter skies were gray and gloomy, I thought that maybe Eva would still like being here, appreciating the stark beauty of the landscape in winter. I just remember thinking about her and imagining her hiking around the park. I had hoped that if I listened real hard, I could her voice in the wind and among the trees. Maybe feel her touch in the winter rain.
The Sound of Rain
November 17, 1996. Richard Harrington’s appreciation for Eva is on the front page of the Washington Post’s Sunday Arts Section. I learn that Eva has passed on. I remember her from a September local television news report from the Bayou tribute and I feel sad. As I read the article, I find myself shaking my head, grimacing, mumbling a terse, "goddamn", in sadness that the pretty young woman I saw on the news report had a remarkable gift and passed away before I had a chance to really know who she was. Moreover, I feel angry that I’m just really finding out now about Eva through the mainstream media.
So turn off the Sunday morning television news shows and let the coffee and toast grow cold. Look up from the newspaper and see the bars of morning sunlight flood through the living room windows. I sit there looking at specks of dust floating in the streaks of sunlight. I listen to the refrigerator’s hum. Richard’s appreciation is so eloquently written that I immediately have the wretched feeling of knowing I missed something that I’ve been waiting my entire life for. It is as if I had an event predestined for me, yet, something led me astray. Handicapped by the fog of my memories and reflections, I’ll never know why I never took the right actions to find her until it was too late. I’ll carry that regret to my grave.
I can’t quite figure out why I’m so bothered by this news about a complete stranger. In my reflections, perhaps I unknowingly knew that I missed out on the very thing that would make me connect with my humanity and spiritual self. And in my dreams, I felt sadness like rain. Remember how cool the rain feels against your skin. Remember in your tranquil moments how the rain sometimes makes you feel sad although you don’t know why. Remember the hissing as the million drops of rain fall to the earth and crash onto the streets and the leaves on the trees. The sound of rain is a distant thought in my mind, like endless ocean waves upon waves from afar, that carry with it the memories of all our lives, churning and rolling closer and closer until crashing upon the shore. Like something out of the corner of my eye, I turned towards her but Eva was gone; I was too late. There will always be a part of my consciousness that carries the sound of rain, the sound of waves. For anyone who has been deeply affected by Eva, or any loved one we have lost, we all carry the sound of rain within our hearts.
Only after I finally find her CD’s, does my dream consciousness, floating effortlessly like mythical ether, skim through the treetops where the sound of rain resides. The land that I heard of once in a lullaby turned out to be Eva’s green and gold fields of the countryside that roll on under Fitzgerald’s cool, blue American night. I’ll reach back through the years to find you if you’ll always be there for me in the years to come. When I close my eyes at night, I hunger for you to teach me about love and compassion and how to feel something. Teach me about all the things I use to know. Teach me about what it means to be alive and how to awaken my numb emotions. Teach me to weep again over long lost memories, of past regrets and sorrows, of long forgotten happiness. Talk to me again, I missed you the first go around. Let me find you through sunsets, starlight and trails of stardust. Above all, sing to me again so I can feel inspired to find the voice of my own life’s song.
Journeying through the past
Some things are hard to remember. The passage of time creates long lost memories. I’m struggling to remember exactly when I became aware of her. I do remember seeing her name or her name with Chuck Brown in the newspaper’s nightclub listings with enough regularity to make me think, "Who’s this Eva Cassidy?" I saw her name in the listings enough to sort of just know she was a local gal. I sort of knew who Chuck Brown was and I incorrectly assumed that Eva was a black singer. My memory fails me now as time fades away from those distant yesterdays. I thought I saw the Eva Cassidy Band listed for The Bayou and the Birchmere. I vaguely recall the ads for Fleetwood’s, Mick Fleetwood’s club in Old Town Alexandria, VA.
In retrospect, I had opportunities to see her, but I never thought, "What the heck? Let me go check out this band." However, I find it difficult to look back on how I discovered Eva. I don’t like thinking about this too much. My discovery isn’t like how a lot of other fans found her. My discovery was a slow process and it turned out to be painful. The local media had reported that she was ill. I remember a local television news reporter covering The Bayou tribute concert. I had the opportunity to attend her memorial service held at Greenbelt Park in Greenbelt, Maryland but I didn’t go. I still didn’t know how special she was and what the world lost because I hadn’t heard any of Eva’s music yet.
It wasn’t until December 1996 that I was finally able to find a copy of "Live At Blues Alley" at the local Tower Records. I remember standing by the CD player in my home, my vision blurred by the burning tears that flowed. I had finally noticed her but when I turned around to move towards her, she was gone. To quote a line from a Paul Westerberg song,
She kissed the wind and made the rain
jealous enough to fall for days…
The pathway to wisdom begins with a drive down 16th Street in Maryland, across the Washington, DC border, and over to the entrance to Rock Creek Park. Following Beach Drive, you move under the canopy of trees in the park and you find yourself at Oregon Avenue. Wisdom’s path takes you through the peaceful neighborhoods along Nebraska Avenue, cutting across Connecticut Avenue. Once at the circle, you find Wisconsin Avenue and the neighborhood of Tenleytown. You wonder if Eva and the band might have stopped somewhere along here for beer and pizza at Armands. From here, it’s a straight shot. Drive south until you hit M Street. At the bustling intersection of Wisconsin and M Street, you have arrived. This is Georgetown. Just ahead of you, across M Street, and on the left, is the Blues Alley nightclub, 1073 Wisconsin Avenue, Washington, DC.
The "Songbird" biography certainly provided a lot more details about who she was and is. It’s still amazing to see my favorite hometown girl achieving all this global recognition and praise, albeit very quietly. It is hard not to think of Eva and not get a feeling of wanting to protect her, to safeguard her. It really isn’t protection of her physical self, she seems quite capable of taking care of herself. Rather, it is the protection of what I think she represents. She possesses a gift of such uncommon beauty, so delicate and fragile, that you don’t want it to be trampled upon. You recognize that there is something quite different, special there. It’s like finding a flower growing through the cracks in the concrete sidewalk of the city.
Like all of us, I wish she were here to see how widespread her music has become and that many more people than she could have imagined responded to what she had to offer. I wish she were still here not just because she had more music to share with us. Not because of the fame, although she does deserve accolades and recognition far more than any musician I can think of right now. It isn’t because of the money, although that would have assisted her in pursuing a music career full time. Rather, I wish she were still here for her family and friends who love and miss her. I wish she were still here because by all accounts she was a sweet person. And most importantly, I wish she were still here so that we, the fans, could tell her that we love her.
She may have finally understood that toward the end, that the love and acceptance that eluded her in bars and lounges full of noisy, heartless, oblivious drunks, was really here all along. It was (and continues to exist) in her family, friends, band members, and those of us who’ve been blessed to receive her gift. Pity those who listen and do not hear her.
Perhaps we want fame for Eva, or at least household recognition in the US, more so than she actually wanted it herself. I have to try and look at the world through her eyes to understand how she felt. It never occurred to me until recently that maybe Eva really knew, deep down inside, how good she was and it scared her because of the effect it had on audience members. She might have had a subconscious inkling that her vocal talents were on a completely different level than most her peers. Imagine that you had that talent, something so perfectly natural to you that you don’t even think twice about it. Of course, you work on your craft, hone it. Master your art. Yet, what is so natural to you is supernatural to others.
Even though audience members mean no harm, think about how strange it would be to have people coming to you all teary eyed, telling you how wonderful you are. Perhaps she was perplexed and found it strange that the reaction was so strong, that the audience was overreacting to what she had done. For doing something that was so natural and effortless to her. Perhaps she knew this towards the end and was getting more comfortable and accepting of her special talent.
Our senses are bombarded by the world around us. Sometimes we have to filter out a lot of sensations just to make it through the day. In our daily lives, there are things we feel, thoughts we have, words we want to say. Most of it never reaches the light of day. Simmering deep inside ourselves is a mélange of emotions that we keep hidden. These are things like our secret desires, regrets, sorrows, pain, anger, emptiness, and loneliness. In one cathartic moment, Eva’s beautiful music gives voice to all that we feel. We all have our own varied emotional and private responses to her. For some, her voice and music empties the soul of its burdens, if but for a brief moment. Or perhaps, she allows others to finally grieve in a healthy, non-destructive fashion. Whatever your response, Eva’s voice stirs the emotional core of your being and allows you to experience those emotions, rather than be consumed by it.
Night settles in like a slow drifting fog. I drive around the county for a bit, with no particular place to go. After foolishly wasting gasoline, the road comes to an end for me. I pull my car in front of my townhouse. I don’t hear any car traffic from the distant highways or boulevards. The neighborhood is very still with serenity like that of snow falling in the overnight hours. Winter’s night air is sharp and cool as I walk to my front door. I sit down on the front step and stare up at the clear night sky, searching for the edge of the Milky Way.
Various thoughts flow through my mind. One thought I struggle with is figuring out what makes people respond to Eva’s music. What is this near universal response? How is it that Eva’s musical gift can move people to tears? Of course, we’re moved by the sheer beauty and timbre of her voice, and her genius for interpretation. But there’s some other quality. As I turn the collar up on my coat, I contemplate the themes of her songs.
Others have noted that there is a sadness in some of the most poignant songs she chose to perform. Still, others note death and separation in her song choices. Some see hope and longing. After mulling it over, I think it’s all those things. But the one unifying factor in this is love. All of these themes are really an outgrowth of love. Not just a romantic love, but a deeper, powerful spiritual type of love for life and all things. Sadness and longing occurs after death and separation but it is really the result of our love for someone or some thing. What Eva does is pierce our consciousness and mends the hole with a stitch of her golden thread. That thread is within you and me and all else who not only listens to Eva, but hears her as well. The thread also binds us all together, for that thread is love.
The night air has gotten colder and I shiver a bit. Under the bath of November stars, I get up and head inside. Light as air now, I disappear from view. Illuminated by this winter night, I just hope that the sleep that I fall into will be as blissful and full of peace as it has been in my dreams. She once sang,
There is a ship
It’s sailing the seas
It’s loaded high
And deep as can be
But not so deep
As my love for you…
So when I think of Eva, when I listen to her, I know I’m hearing and feeling love. Her voice cannot be stilled or silenced, for the first note she ever sang still echoes through the universe, moving ceaselessly through infinity. Her voices echoes in my heart and mind like the ripples of a pebble dropped into a pond and I am helplessly drawn to her as if I were haunted by gravity. Eva’s voice and music will be in my consciousness and spirit, accompanying me through the remainder of my earthbound life, like some vibrating and glowing protective halo. Forever…
Text copyright 2003 by Eric Wong.