Like Air and Breathing: Interview with Virginia Baker
I am humbled to print this interview with my old friend, the writer Virginia Baker. She is honest in this interview, and thoughtful, deep. Her experience mirrors my own in the sense that we have both lost music, but want to get it back.
I met Ginny in college—we were both English majors together, and having the time of our lives. We began, then, a conversation that continues to this day. She teaches me, still, with wisdom and patience. We were rebels together, in the sense that we both loved and championed science fiction and fantasy literature in a department that devalued it—we faced together, and with other friends, the injustice of unreasoning prejudice: and we never gave in, we never sold out. It would have been easier if we had. I think of her as a comrade in arms: we have had each other's backs all these decades.
Her poetry and her fiction, from the first days I knew her—swept me away to better places, and to hope: it still does. We worked together at three magazines in our college years, and sometimes, on break, I'd open a dictionary at random, point to a word, and ask her to write a poem using that word. Invariably, the next day, she would present me with the most beautiful poem, and that word in it.
After we graduated, Ginny and I sometimes went together to job interviews. Once, we interviewed for positions at The New Era, a Mormon church publication headquartered in Salt Lake City. Ginny looked like she had stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine—she was breathtaking, and she even wore an elegant hat. I had dressed up to the nine's, as well. As we waited in the lobby to be called to our interviews, frumpy people who already worked there came out and stared at us. Finally, the editor greeted us, and took us both into a conference room. He did not sit down, or ask us to. "You don't want to work here," he said. "Save yourselves, and leave." We needed work, but we took his advice. It's probably one of those moments that made all the difference.
Ginny sent me this bio: "As an American born in Germany, Virginia Baker grew up steeped in ancient cities, caught up in the history breathing from their stones. She has a BS in Near Eastern Studies and an MA in English Literature, both from BYU. She runs her own business, writes fiction whenever she can steal a moment of time, and operates a rescue animal shelter. Today, she lives in Utah with a flock of large birds and the cats who fear them, and the small band of wild Shih Tzus that have taken over the back yard. Her greatest achievement so far has been her daughter, Sara, who was born in Vladivostok, Russia."
The interview follows:
Y4M: What is your earliest memory of music?
Virginia Baker: My earliest memories are of waking up to hear my mother playing the piano, and to the smell of my father’s coffee brewing. That can’t be my true earliest memory, of course, because my family has pictures of me dancing to The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which I was apparently utterly gaga about, at around six years old. And I have no doubts at all that my very earliest memory of music would be my mother singing, because she was always singing; I don’t even think she was aware of doing it half the time: humming a tune, like purring. I’m sure that this was, in fact, my very earliest memory, because it’s so much a part of my memory of her that it is firmament to my world.
Y4M: How much time do you spend with music each day?
Virginia Baker: To be honest, I do not have the blood-deep connection to music, right now, that I’ve always had before the last few years. My daughter’s illness has taken all I have, and my grief over how that illness has impacted her life—or could even, possibly, take her life—has overwhelmed everything. Taste, touch, joy, pleasure . . . it’s all been wrapped in a thick layer of cotton, the fog of grief. It just doesn’t touch me. And it’s not because it doesn’t still have that capacity. It’s because it awakens very strong emotions in me . . . and I don’t dare allow that. If I allow those emotions to rise up, I will end up crying, screaming, wailing. And I might not be able to stop. So I just don’t go there. I can’t go there. And it's like losing a limb. But I do miss it. God, I miss it. I used to look at color and feel it thrill through me. Watch movies and read stories and live through them, renewed. Music had always been the portal to my imagination, to my best self: That door that opened wide into impossible depths and heights; a pathway that cut direct to the deeper parts of self—those inner territories that go beyond who I am in the “real” world and into an almost multi-dimensional element of soul that exists as its own world, unseen and unguessed-at and so very precious. But while I can still put on the headphones and listen, that special door stays closed. It’s terrifying, really. And it means so much more than the other, smaller alienations. The taste of food is lovely, but it’s an immediate, physical thing. It sucks to have the life sucked out of that, and yet it’s surface stuff, more of an annoyance than crippling. But music—this is an alienation from the better parts of myself. Without it, I feel like I’m becoming a different person—someone I don’t like nearly as much, because I’m cut off from the most essential part of my best self.
Y4M: Do you have one piece of music that you turn to again and again? Why?
Virginia Baker: This is funny. I listen to a collection of boy bands that my daughter has introduced me to over these last few difficult years. They’ve rather become the anthems of those horrible years, our own “state songs,” so to speak . . . where “state” is not a place but a state of being. One Republic. Imagine Dragons. American Authors. Bastille. So many of those songs are hymns to pain, ballads of loneliness and fear. Elegies for outsiders. Stories about the monsters inside us (or outside) that we all need rescuing from. Or they are upbeat allegiances to hope—that elusive wellspring that exists in that better world that I am so cut off from right now. So I drink from their hope. It’s more like taking in seawater than freshwater, sometimes—I know it will hurt me to do it, because hope has become a dangerous thing for me over these last few years . . . but I am so thirsty for it. So I listen, and while it doesn’t really refresh my own stagnant waters, I at least get to revel in the fact that someone out there does have hope, does have a great life worth singing about in such happy terms, so maybe, someday….
Y4M: What, in music, currently excites you the most?
Virginia Baker: When I hear snatches of the unexpected: Someone will send me something new, or I’ll accidentally select something from my iTunes list. Don’t laugh—it happens to me; the iTunes interface and I don’t get along. But when it happens, it’s pure wonder. Most of the time, oddly enough, it’s sweeping movie soundtracks or something classical and profoundly beautiful. You’d think I would seek these things out, because they do wake up the wonder and they are in my music library. But it’s the surprise, I think, that does it—cracks open that magical door for a moment. It’s as if I have lost the ability to be that profoundly happy beyond a few stolen moments. Or, as I’ve said before, that I don’t dare risk opening up that Pandora’s box of violent and vivid emotion. Or if, in some way, I don’t deserve to be happy if my child cannot have that profound a level of happiness as well. Survivor’s guilt, with a twist. Because even though she’s still here with me (thank God), her little body can’t sustain the energy necessary for happiness at such a continuing, wonderful level. And where she goes, I go. I don’t allow myself to go where she can’t, so “exciting” is as much a two-edged sword as hope, these days. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. So I guess my excitement comes like a thief, snatching flags of color from my strict emotional boxes. I glimpse those colors—brilliant crimsons and indigos—as my little thief scurries away, over the horizon. And those colors of sound thrill through me for those moments. But I don’t give chase because I have to nail down the boxes again, lest they overwhelm. Those are my surprises, when those snatches of light and color that is music get beyond my defenses.
Y4M: Have you ever come to love a genre of music you did not before?
Virginia Baker: A friend introduced me to Stan Getz, and I struck up an instant liking for it. Sara has introduced me to most of the music I’ve come to love over the last few years. I think she’s surprised that her mom actually likes her music, but she has great taste. I think she was most surprised that I loved “Starships” by Nicki Minaj, but I did.
Y4M: If a time traveler came to you and said that he would take you into the past to hear one musical event or moment—what would you pick to hear, and why?
Virginia Baker: Mozart’s premier of The Magic Flute. I don’t know why, really. Imagining the grandeur of the thing—all the gilded boxes and the crystal chandeliers with real fires from real candles burning like stars . . . and that music, with Mozart himself conducting and the soaring voices. God, what an experience.
Y4M: If you could change one thing about how you currently interact with music, what would that be?
Virginia Baker: I’d be as connected with it as I used to be. God knows it’s more available than ever. When I was little, my parents had this huge console—a Grundig that they bought in Germany. That thing was 5’ x 3’ x 2’ and stood on 8” legs, and I used to take the satellite speakers (which were shaped like toasters) and set them under the console. Then I’d wiggle in so that my head was between the speakers and under the console, and it was dark, and the sound was in my head and the music was everything. And I would have set one of my parent’s classical records on repeat, and I would just listen . . . for hours. I would imagine and I would dream; I would fall half into a trancelike state, to be honest. I would go so deep into myself that after hours of this, when I had perhaps spelunked a bit too far into my inner self, a voice would come to me in my head and say, “Ginny.” Clear as if the person saying it was standing right next to me, but in my head. And I knew, instinctively, that that voice called to me because if it didn’t, I might have been lost forever. So I’d “wake up,” though I hadn’t been asleep, per se. I would come back to the upper levels of self. But I just had to be a part of the music, I just had to stitch myself into its fabric. This was before headphones, of course. And I loved headphones, obviously. They gave me much the same experience, only I could walk around with them and there wasn’t that danger of getting lost inside myself that there was with the Grundig. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that big old console, though. At a time when I have half-a-dozen iPods and an iPad and a music library on my computer and my phone . . . I miss the Grundig. I miss being able to lose myself like that.
Y4M: What piece of music have you picked for us to hear today, and why did you pick it?
Virginia Baker: Gosh, there’s just so much out there. So I couldn’t settle on just one. I’ve picked four—most of them wildly different.
The first one is called "Beau Soir," sung by Barbara Streisand. It’s in French (I think), so I have no idea what’s being said. But it’s so full of longing that whatever it’s saying, it’s just saying it all. (Y4M: this song is from Streisand's album Classical Barbara; but Streisand's rendition is also included in the marvelous collection from Sony Classical, Great Performances, 1903 - 1998):
Y4M: "Beau Soir" is a French art song written by Claude Debussy when he was 15 (1887). It is a setting of a poem by Paul Bourget. The words, translated, mean:
When beneath the setting sun,
Glows a river in evening,
And the warm summer wind blows out across the fields,
It calls us and tells us to be happy;
It climbs up towards the troubled heart
With a plea to relish the charm of life
While there is youth and the evening is fair,
For we are going away, as this stream goes away:
The stream to the sea, we to the grave.
Virginia Baker, continued: And then there’s this one, also one of my favorites: "Unchained Melody," as performed by the Righteous Brothers (1965). I’ve always loved it. Again, so much longing. To me, it doesn’t matter what it is you’re longing for, it just touches that chord. And I suppose it’s special to me because I never did fall in love, no matter how much I wanted to. I’m nearly 60 and I’ve never met this person that I’ve longed for (like air and breathing) all my life. I still do long for whomever that person is. So to me, this song is my own personal anthem, my affirmation to that person that I am still waiting, and that I do still love and long for us to be together.
Finally, there are these two: "Smoke and Mirrors," and "I Bet My Life," by Imagine Dragons. I love that entire Smoke and Mirrors album (for which the first song is named), for one reason or another. But these two songs touch a chord, I think, for anyone who has left something they loved, something that formed the foundation of their lives—community, a marriage, an especially deep friendship, a long-time partnership, or a religion. Because in this case, for me, that’s what it is—it’s the LDS church. Something I loved and that formed the firmament of the world I stood on. That’s not an easy thing to lose. "Smoke and Mirrors" expresses my inability to believe any longer and how much that hurts. So many still-believing Mormons assume that those of us who leave do so because we want to, not because we have to, because we can’t live within that community for one reason or another. I don’t think they have any idea how much it hurts us when we go—the agony of that parting, and how huge a hole it leaves in our lives. To lose something that was everything pretty much obliterates the universe, and living through that is devastating. But the doubt that initiates that leaving . . . that is it’s own sort of agony, and this song sings to that.
The second song from that album, "I Bet My Life," is sort of . . . not an apology, but an acknowledgement . . . to my parents, to family and friends, for how leaving the church impacted them. Because while I don’t think I could have done anything else, I know it hurt them, all of them, in one way or another. I had great parents—parents who loved me even more than they loved the church (and I know they loved the church; they’d dedicated their lives on earth and into eternity on it, so I know they loved it; and that told me just how much courage they had for loving the family that church told them was the whole point, even in the face of my apostacy)—so while my leaving didn’t hurt my relationship with them, I do know that does happen too often to other LDS kids whose parents might be confused about what really is right and wrong when their kids leave the fold or can’t, for whatever reason, conform to its demands. And I’m fairly sure this song is the singer’s own expression of how much that schism hurts everyone involved (or at least that’s my interpretation of it). So it strikes a chord for any of us who have made that transition and had family, friends or loved ones for whom that leaving has created schisms or hurt or painful distances or even outright banishments.
Y4M: Here is a link to the Imagine Dragons official site, and a music video for "I Bet My Life"; the band sings this song in live concert (and I would like to attend one!):
How Hearing This Music Affected Me
"Beau Soir" is staggeringly beautiful—and to think Debussy wrote it when he was 15! French art song is one of the great treasures of humanity. Streisand sings this song beautifully. I was impressed that her rendition is included in an important classical collection of 20th century art song. Streisand is sometimes looked down on: and she should not be.
I learned everything I know about the Righteous Brothers tonight. "Unchained Melody" is apparently one of the most recorded songs in history, and the solo by Bobby Hatfield (one of the Righteous Brothers) is considered definitive. Here is a link to the square-jawed, blue-eyed Hatfield singing it in 1965 (wearing a pink blazer!):
When radio listeners first heard the voices of the Righteous Brothers, many thought that they were black—and the term "blue-eyed soul" was coined for them.
I love the two songs Ginny chose for us from the American band Imagine Dragons. The meanings she has given them makes the songs mean all the more to me, makes them poignant: especially "I Bet My Life." At the end of that song, when Dan Reynolds, the lead vocalist, sings: "Please forgive me for all I have done"—I feel the same way Ginny does: I'd like to be able to say that to my parents, again.
I want to thank Ginny, not just for this interview, but for introducing me to all of this music. My life is richer for it.
Ginny is one of my favorite writers. Here is a link to her excellent and terrifying novel, Jack Knife:
Ginny has given me permission to reprint her poem, "Chiefs," written at the death of the beloved Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball (originally published in BYU Studies 25 [Fall 1985]: 76). President Kimball worked tirelessly on behalf of Native Americans, hence the subject matter and setting of this poem. I want to point out the only end-line rhyme, which comes at the very center of the poem, and the additional meaning it gives: and the power of that rhyme, set, as it is, at the heart of the poem:
The land is dry, Spencer.
The desert blushes with the setting Sun
and the sheep bleat at rising stars
and the sudden brightness of the Moon.
The wind is dry. It is cold
on this night. Fall is here.
I have been a chief. My tribe is old.
I am old. My people dwindle.
Yours, too. You call them back
with a shepherd's voice. And they come.
Winter is a dry time here. The sheep
stray too far, looking for water.
I have seen you on the reservation.
I have seen you feed the sheep.
Was there a time you did not weep
and wipe the soiled feet of your folk
with that cloak you wore?
Spencer, you sleep today
longer than you did before.
By my fire, you sang such music,
a song made of a quiet voice.
In the night, I hear you whisper.
My eyes are dry, Spencer.
My heart is still.
I see you when the stars walk.
When you come again,
sit with me a while.
We will sing together in the wind.
I created "When the Stars Walk," the image above, in 2006. The title is from Virginia Baker's poem, "Chiefs" (publication information above).