Alex Woodard - The Letter lyrics
II. The Letter
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. — Lao-tzu
Me and the leaves are barely hanging on when I get the letter. Autumn is painting change everywhere, and I am turning over a season of my own, although the trees are doing a better job of letting go than I am. Leaves and dreams alike are either dying on the limb or already gone. And so is she.
I am younger, barely out of college, and working a monotonous, entry-level job at a financial-services firm in Boston when I begin to dream with eyes wide open. I stare at my computer screen and dream in flashes and moments, where I see pictures of living an unordinary life somewhere far away from the fluorescent lights and prefab felt walls of my cubicle. Somewhere with a big sky, mountains, and a dog.
A dog would be a real friend, I tell myself. A dog would fill the space.
Sometimes I dream about music. I've only begun stumbling through songwriting, but just the thought of someday making a moment in someone's life better with one of my songs makes me feel more alive than anything at my job ever could. Someday is a word full of hope, but it's also an escape from the present, and I close my eyes on the crowded subway every morning and dream about someday. After work I run along the near-frozen Charles River in my ski clothes imagining a dog at my side, and I spend my evenings and weekends alone, teaching myself to play guitar and writing lyrics in a notebook I buy from a pharmacy down the street.
I wake up one morning in my tiny loft apartment in Kenmore Square to Bruce Springsteen singing “Trapped” from my clock radio. My eyes open to his gravelly voice promising that someday I will see beyond these walls and walk out of here. And, in the middle of the Clarence Clemons sax solo, as I stare into the harsh half-light filtering through the exhaust-caked windows fronting Brookline Avenue, I get it.
Life is somewhere else.
Later that day I tell my boss that my dreams are waiting out West, somewhere with trees and a dog. I give notice, and two weeks later I'm reading the goodbye card signed by everyone in my department, eating goodbye cake, and drinking goodbye coffee. My older co-workers talk to me in remember-when tones about chasing their own dreams and wistfully wave as I turn to face them from the elevator, push L, and wave back as the doors close. The elevator opens into the lobby, and I walk out onto Federal Street and into a world of promise.
Over the weekend I pack up my truck, and within two days I'm pulling off I-80 in Utah, where a box of puppies is waiting behind my aunt's garage door. There are two puppies left unclaimed, and I throw a knotted-up sock across the floor to see which one retrieves it first. A tiny black Labrador with soft eyes stumbles to the sock, picks it up, and makes her way back to me through the gauntlet of paint cans and cardboard boxes.
She falls over herself and into my lap, and I am in love. I call her Kona, after the black-sand beaches on Hawaii's Kona coast. I had written that name down on a scrap of paper the winter before and pinned it to the wall in my cubicle, back when I had first started imagining a dog and a life less ordinary somewhere in the trees.
I find the dog in Utah and the trees in the Pacific Northwest, where I get a temp job working for an Internet-software company in Seattle's Pioneer Square. One day I see a guy with long dreadlocks in the hallway, and he introduces himself as a ba** player who works in the company's tech department. We talk about music, and he comes over a few nights later to play some of my songs in the basement. Within a few months, we have our first show at the University Sports Bar in Seattle, where I sing until my throat is raw and play my guitar without a pick until my fingers bleed at the cuticles. I pretend like I've done it a million times, but really have no idea what I'm doing.
It's a good start, but that's all it is. I sink into my secondhand couch every night and earnestly write songs that mostly speak to loneliness and missed connections, with a hopeful message that someday will be better than today. I sit at my kitchen table dutifully addressing postcards announcing gigs to my hard-earned mailing list, but play to only a handful of people. I book studio time and write checks to local engineers to record my songs, only to sell a few CDs.
These cold realities of the music business slowly begin to creep under my skin, and some nights, as I lay alone in bed, I weave a make-believe coat of dreams as protection to keep me warm: dreams of “making it,” dreams of having somebody to grow old with, dreams of little feet on hardwood floors. That imaginary coat of protection keeps the cold out, but it also keeps most of myself hidden from anybody else.
My days become some sort of solo waltz, where I bring my left foot up and step to the right, bring my right foot back and step to the left, always moving but hardly ever forward. Barely-break-even touring is bookended by stalled personal and professional relationships, and I find that sometimes chasing dreams is just that: a chase. I tell myself that maybe this crap gig will lead to a better opportunity, and that opportunity will lead to a better gig, and so on, until driving home from a show one night I realize that I've spent most of my 20s trying to be anywhere other than where I am. I remember listening to “Trapped” on the clock radio back in Boston and telling myself, Life is somewhere else. But somewhere else doesn't feel right anymore.
And maybe it's because I'm not confident enough yet, maybe I'm afraid to talk to that girl at the bar, maybe I'm a late bloomer. Or maybe it's because I'm burrowed behind that make-believe coat. Whatever it is, I'm alone most of the time, and I cling to the cliché that still waters run deep as an excuse for keeping to myself.
I maintain this constant migration toward solitude while I live in Seattle, avoiding parties and bars unless I'm performing at them. I tell myself that being alone helps me write and connect to people through my songs, although I'm not really sure anybody's listening. So I write because I'm alone, but I'm alone because I write. And while I might write to connect to people, I also write selfishly. I write for me, because writing gives me someplace to put my love. My hope. My fear.
I write about the mystery. I invite it in like an old friend who knows me, and we have conversations about what's going to happen to me. The mystery knows what my wife is going to look like. And where my kids will take their first steps. And if anything I write is going to matter. The mystery knows, but I don't.
One night on the road, after a particularly empty gig in Chicago, I'm far away from anything or anyone familiar and standing in the unforgiving bathroom lights of my hotel room when I see it for the first time. I lean over the sink, closer to the mirror to make sure I'm seeing what I think I'm seeing. My eyes are tired with small wrinkles at their seams, and it looks like a few gray hairs are coming in above my right temple. I am older. I stare at myself for a couple of minutes, and after a while it's as if I'm staring at someone else. I turn the lights off and make my way to bed, only to search the ceiling for answers to the questions reflected in the bathroom mirror.
How did I get here?
Do I give up?
[Lyrics from: https:/lyrics.az/alex-woodard/for-the-sender/the-letter.html]
I remember my dad telling me, “Don't be an old man in a young man's game,” but that's not the answer I'm looking for. The ceiling holds nothing else for me, and I watch the dancing shadows cast by the blue light of the television until sometime around daylight I finally fall into a broken sleep. I dream of myself as a child on a cold, rocky beach with a gray sky threatening overhead. The child has just come out of the water to find that someone has stolen his clothes, so he stands there holding his privates and shivering. Just shivering.
Shivering, that is, until I fly back to Seattle the next morning and pull into my driveway later that night. Kona's gentle eyes shine like fireflies as my headlights trace across the window, and I can hear her deep bark signaling my arrival. I open the front door, and her tail is wagging so hard that it hits the coat-closet door and bleeds a little, leaving small red brush strokes across the entryway wall. Kona doesn't care, and neither do I. I'm home.
The next morning I paint over the streaks, but it's a futile effort since it happens whenever I leave her and come home; we're both used to her being my constant companion and the unconditional keeper of my heart. I tell her what I'm scared of and share my little victories with her. She listens without judgment, always with love, and ends most of our conversations with a thump of her tail and a search for something to play with to help me refocus on the important things. Being present. Living. Playing.
I take her everywhere with me that doesn't involve an airplane. I sneak her backstage at the small, dirty clubs I'm playing and out of hotels the next morning. One New Year's Eve I'm playing a show in Santa Barbara and come back to the hotel to see Kona asleep behind the front desk, at the feet of the Asian-American hotel manager who points to the No Pets sign on the wall. He says in broken English that she was barking, so he pulled her from the room, but she was so friendly that he couldn't call animal control. That's the first time I realize that she has more friends than I do, just by being herself. She teaches me many lessons like this as time pa**es, lessons mostly in patience, selflessness, and love.
Long after I get home from Chicago, the scenes from my shivering dream continue to flash through my head. Something has to change, and I wonder if maybe it's my surroundings, so I rent my house in Seattle to a mutual friend to cover my bills and move back to Southern California to be closer to the ocean and my family. I find a little house north of San Diego where I spend early mornings rediscovering my love for surfing and the rest of the day knocking on music-industry doors via phone and email.
Some nights I play shows at local coffee shops and bars, but most nights I run with Kona on the beach before making dinner for myself. I rinse my plate, turn off the kitchen light, and head to the couch, where I write and rewrite songs until Kona's soft steps on the hardwood floor follow me to bed. I lay with fading faith that maybe this next song will be “the one” and someday this will all make sense.
I still carry someday with me everywhere, but now I hang on to it like a tree hangs on to its last leaf in the early winter wind, sensing that with one strong gust that leaf will fall. And soon enough it does.
Christmases come and go and come again, and I am disconnected, ground down by the chase, and sitting in the cold white lights of a veterinarian's office when I hear a faraway voice saying that Kona's bones are starting to disintegrate from cancer and that she probably has a week to ten days to live. I don't want to get in a car wreck on the way home, so I hold back, hold back, hold back until I carry her through the front door and lay her down in the living room. I don't stop crying until I fall asleep on the floor next to her.
Even then, I don't really stop.
When I wake up a few hours later, I lift her over the mess of cables and cheap recording gear littering the room and onto my bed. I sit next to her and stare at our reflection in the window until I'm looking through the gla** and down into a well carved deep with memories, with only the edge of a dream peeking out from the brackish water that laps against the side. In the well water I see the past 14 years rushing by like a movie in fast-forward.
The scenes fly by fast, from a puppy picking up a knotted sock in my aunt's garage, through those cold, wet nights playing guitar while she slept at my feet, when I wasn't really alone because she was with me. I see almost every moment up to right now, when my eyes come back into focus on the window and settle on our picture framed in the gla**.
I quietly shudder and Kona looks up at me and wags her tail once, which she often does at the close of our conversations. It's how she says It's okay, Dad. I put my hand on her shoulder. It's not okay, Kona. Not at all.
That week I invite anyone who ever knew Kona to a Christmas gathering at my house to say goodbye to her. My new neighbors and some old acquaintances show up, and her vet brings a soft blanket for Kona to lie on. The cancer hurts the worst where it started in her shoulder, so she lays on her less painful side at the top of the stairs where she can see everyone. She thwacks her tail on the hardwood floor as people with wet eyes line up single-file and bend down on their way out to rub her belly, some giving up the fight and crying for what seems like forever with their heads on her disintegrating shoulder.
The last guests make their way down the stairs, past the lit-up tree, and out into the night, where their worlds keep on turning toward Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, and the rest of their lives. I lean against the counter and feel my world sputter a little and lurch forward and back until I pick Kona up, lay her in my bed, sit on the edge, and wait for it all to stop.
She slowly deteriorates but surprises everyone with her bright eyes and resilience, and it is midsummer of the following year before she dies in my living room with her head on my lap. A single tear emerges from the corner of her eye, trickles down her gray muzzle, and disappears into the fabric of my shorts. A friend who is there to help says that it might look like she is crying but it's just her body reacting to d**h, and I say to myself, It's the same thing. I leave the three folded pages I have written to her earlier that day next to her body and cry my way through our old beach run until I can't see through the tears and sit on the sand with my head in my hands, watching everything I thought would happen by now trickle through my fingers into a pool at my feet.
So, me and the leaves are barely hanging on when I get the letter.
Every year around this time, I feel a little nostalgic and sad, because this is the season when I lost someone who meant a great deal to me. You see, I am one of the lucky ones, I have experienced the amazing connection of love with a soul mate. A real kindred spirit. Unfortunately, he pa**ed away a few years ago, but I still consider myself lucky, not only because I have felt true love, but I have lost it as well and that too can be considered a gift; for I now know even more than before just how precious life and love are. Of course, I am not always able to smile through the day, sometimes I still miss him, painfully so. Like in autumn, not only the time of year when he was taken from me, but also the time we loved best. So, every year around this time, when the memories fill me, I write him a letter. I thought I'd share it with you, not so you'd write a song for he and I, but because I think your songs are gifts. Pieces of yourself used to help other people with their stories. So, here is a piece of myself. It is all I have to share in return for the wonderful thing you are doing with your music and your talent.
I don't know Emily or how she has heard any of my songs, but folded behind her letter to me is the one she has written to her partner earlier that autumn. I open the parchment-thin pages, and the auburn-colored leaves included in the envelope fall out onto the table along with a photograph of a man with his arms outstretched, who I a**ume is Emily's soul mate. And the air catches in my throat as I begin to read.