Jonathan Bower. Photo by Emily Mesner

Jonathan Bower. Photo by Emily Mesner

When I was invited to assemble this alt-holiday playlist, I was immediately drawn to the proposed theme — Close to Home. On the one hand, given this time of year on the calendar, you’ll understand how it immediately conjured a holiday-specific montage of images as might appear in a saccharine and atrocious Hallmark Movie of the Week Christmas special.

What I also love about the “Close to Home” theme, however, is the other way we often hear it referenced. “Close to home” can be how we also respond to an insult, or to a loved one’s slight – as in, “Ouch, dude. Wow. That really hit close to home.” Or, “Did you have to be so harsh? That lands a little close to home.”

I love the tension between the two meanings and the interplay of what “close to home” can mean. For some of us, home is synonymous with “welcome”, and with what’s most cozy, preferable, and adored in our lives. I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” the other night for maybe the 383rd time in my life and watched my existential longing for something called “home” rocket past my inner-pits-of-snark and all the dark spots scattered around my heart and then pool into tears in my eyes as if I were watching it for the first time, entirely unguarded. For others of us, “home” is a lot more complicated and fraught than we wish. And never more so than at this time of year, too, for many reasons. And perhaps, since the onset of the pandemic two years ago, our ideas of “home” have never seemed more complicated, uncertain, or important to us than right now, in our collective moment in time.

Crowded Table – The HighwomenEveryone’s a little broken/and everyone belongs…

If a theme song exists in this playlist, it’s this one.

I first heard this track from the all-female country supergroup’s premier 2019 album for a few days into 2020. It appeared in an end of the year recap of some of the past year’s best releases. Something felt prescient or fortuitous in my car on the January evening it rolled through the speakers. Not much earlier, I’d learned my offer on a scrappy little fixer-upper in west Anchorage had been accepted, and in the blur of a swift few days I’d leapt from over-cautious, lifelong renter into sudden home ownership. My body erupted with goosebumps and chills when the women belted out their collective chorus in my car that evening: I want a house with a crowded table/And a place by the fire for everyone…

Yes, yes, yes!! Perfect timing! That’s what I want, too!

That’s what my new house was going to be.

If the chorus didn’t convince me – and it had – the entire second verse’s analogy of planting a garden and sowing seeds and reaping love and happiness sealed the deal. I saw future house concerts, holiday feasts, birthday parties, and game-night gatherings filling my new space. If a new house needed a theme song, this was mine. I would make this quirky little foreclosure property into a place where friends and my kids’ friends and my friends’ friends could all crowd the dinner table and fireplace on any given night. In due time, this would become a home where, as the women croon in the bridge, “everyone belongs.”

I tattooed this to my soul and saw big things ahead.

Then, COVID. As the fates would have it, my sons and I moved into our west side home the week we all dashed into our first lockdown. My new drafty bedroom instantly doubled as my home-based telehealth therapy office. My kids’ bedrooms became their Zoom classrooms. You know this story in your own way. We all spun our wheels over the next few months in what felt like a not-funny-in-the-least version of Groundhog’s Day, and all while our house also became a giant construction site.

This was only the start of lockdown — a period that we also worried we could kill each other with a sneeze or from standing too close to each other, or from touching a can or pen with our COVID-laced fingers and passing it to someone else. When we walked masked, wide-eyed, sometimes gloved, and always uber-cautious through places like Safeway and Home Depot. My contractors and I would stand across the rooms of the house from each other, talking through details of their progress.

Friends, I’m still longing for the day we can all gather here at the house.

Home – David Byrne & Brian Eno; &/or This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody) — Talking HeadsIt’s curious to listen to Byrne sing these songs today. They were written and recorded decades apart from each other but bear a maybe unintended relation to each other. “Home”, from Byrne’s 2008 collaboration with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, feels like it’s in conversation with the Talking Heads well-loved “This Must Be the Place.” In the band’s classic, Byrne shared that he felt numb and weak at heart, conveying, “Home is where I want to be,” before acknowledging the all too real complexities comprising that concept and place. In his 2008 song, Byrne seems to pick up the reflections where the Talking Heads song left off, continuing his observations about the multi-layered meanings of “home” with the listener, though one that feels more mature and lived-in, and less dependent on the sentimental or idyllic. Both seem cognizant of the multi-layered tensions and contradictions that we carry with our individual hopes or expectations for a home. Both songs, for me, feel like invitations to reflect on all that comes loaded in my notions or longings for “home” – which I’ve no doubt features distinct differences from your own. How do we come to define and create that space in our lives – as well as recognize the blind-spots and contradictions that we bring to our efforts to actualize it? In these ways, “home” becomes the manifestation of not only our hopes and expectations and desires, but the stories, efforts, and intentions of everyone with whom we build and pursue a home – and by virtue of that, a community – together.

25th December – Everything but the Girl, &/or “Joy” – Tracey Thorne

You’re a grown-up/and still unsure

I’m thirty/and I don’t know nothin’ no more

The British husband-wife folk-rock duo, EBTG, found crossover success in the mid-1990s when Todd Terry’s techno-remix of their haunting track, “Missing” — from 1994’s still-brilliant Amplified Heart album — catapulted them to stardom. The remix also determined the trajectory of their sound and songwriting over the years that followed. The acoustic guitar became only a flourish on their records and, along with Tracey Thorne’s vocals – which always seemed the divine source of the duo’s magic – beats and samples took center stage in their work. After the ascendancy of “Missing,” you were more likely to hear EBTG’s latest song or single at a techno rave or playing over the speakers of a hip, low lit nightclub rather than on AAA radio or NPR folk-music programming.

“25th December,” however – a melodic, acoustic ballad – recalls their pre-Missing sound. On the Amplified Heart version, Ben Watts gently carried the vocals. On her 2013, post-EBTG Christmas album, Tinsel and Lights, Tracey Thorne revisited their 1990’s ballad. Both versions are gorgeous. In part because, despite its title and a few scant references, the song is not directly or forcefully a Christmas song. Rather, as a poem of gentle observations and recognitions, the lyric’s melancholy and subtle moments of wonder seem further compounded by a hushed acknowledgement of the date on the calendar.

In a live version of the song from the 1990s, Ben Watts sang “I’m 31 now/and I know absolutely nothing at all.” That “absolutely” — a twist on the original lyric – along with the lulling repetition of the song’s chorus (“And I never, no, I never ever realized”) feels very familiar and on-point right now, decades since the song’s initial release. I’m a widening distance from my thirties now, but as we lean into the third year of a global pandemic this winter, it can feel like I know “absolutely nothing at all” more than ever. But despite a lot of lost and bewildered big feelings, there’s also come a great freedom in the not knowing, too: I am more convinced than ever that a life comprised of subtle moments of wonder qualifies as “the good life” over and beyond any item or achievement our culture defined or marketed to us as evidence of “success” in “the before times.” So much of what was advertised as essential to our happiness or wellbeing has proven empty and meaningless. And I “never, ever realized” until recently. And after the past couple years of pandemic, it’s impossible to convince me otherwise.

My playlist lab-experiment of non-traditional songs for surviving this holiday season can be found at Spotify as “Close to Home: Songs Towards an Atypical Playlist.” You can reach me at Happy holidays, folks.

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