11 days left in 2017, 11 tracks on my 2017 CD, "A Message in the Mess." Follow this free, song-a-day mini-podcast countdown. CD available on itunes, spotify and this site.
I’ve been a lot of things in my life: a journalist, a camp counselor, a side man for Dar Williams, a fitting room attendant at Target, and a teacher. A day job often supports your art in more ways than one. Songwriters shouldn’t know only about songwriting. You need new people, new stories and new experiences to keep you and your writing from becoming too mired in yourself, and losing touch with the real world.
Nothing is more real than losing an arm at 17 years old, and I might never have learned about all the nuances of phantom pain if one of my students hadn’t decided to show me his scar.
One day, due to some testing, Robert was the only one in the English class I was subbing. “Miss Lloyd?” he said. “Do you want to see my scar?”
I had been a journalist. All information had value to me. Of course, I wanted to see. And as a substitute who was developing a love of special education, I also knew this was an important moment for him: He was opening up, normalizing his situation. This is how you eradicate shame. He stretched the neck of his white t-shirt.
Tomatoes split most often just as they're ripening. They grow faster than the outer skin is able to, but they also have the ability to sew themselves back together. In the end, they look unusual, but are still good. His shoulder looked exactly like that. He’d taken a turn too fast, rolled his car into a forest. He’d taken a tree through the chest. He showed me the picture: on the stretcher looking like it grew FROM him, massive and jagged. Holding the blood in.
That day Robert taught his teacher something she didn’t know: that phantom “pain” was an umbrella term. For each amputee, it’s different. For him, it was phantom itching. God, that must be the worst, I thought. The ultimate itch that can’t be scratched, and no one can really see it but you.
I had all my limbs, but Robert’s story gave me the words I’d lacked to explain heartache – a tired subject – in a new way. I, too, knew what it felt like to long for something long gone, severed when it was once a part of you, to feel the nerves of a thing invisible to everyone else, but maybe pain had never been the right word, exactly. In my case, it was also more of an involuntary donor transplant. His heart … my heart … had been given to someone new.
**re-given I hear … **
It took me almost a decade to record the definitive version. I bumped it from an ilyAIMY CD at the last minute back in 2009, replacing it with another track I was connecting with more at the time, the original, acoustic version of “Ask For Me.”
And then, remember that guy from Clear and I Don’t Know What I Want? Yeah … same guy. He came back and made the song true again, and finally I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound: as if Alice in Chains covered Jeffery Foucault’s “I Dream An Old Lover.” We threw a huge ghost delay on the banjo for obvious reasons. And we got that “Rooster”-esque grind and drag in the percussion:
**instrumental section after first chorus**
“Phantom” has stayed relevant and consistently one of the most popular songs in my catalog because I built what is yet another tired break up song on the foundation of someone else’s powerful story. The metaphor implies all kinds of devastating losses. Because Robert told me his story, “Phantom” gets to be bigger than he or I, a song about ALL loss and lingering sensation: the loss of limb, the departure of a partner, the death of a child.
We can’t always grow back what we’ve lost, but we can share our stories, shed our shame, admit to all the things we still have to learn … and most importantly … listen to someone, something other than our one-track hearts.