September 11, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Aspen Matis's Girl in the Woods is a bravely told and important memoir of transformation and self-empowerment.
Greil Marcus wrote of the book:
"This is a very brave book—because there is an open wound in Girl in the Woods, and it never really closes. It becomes a new organ—of doubt, questioning—that remakes both the body and the mind."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
When I set out to walk from Mexico to Canada, I committed to lugging as light a burden as possible—to become "ultralight," surviving within wildernesses by my own intelligence and strength. And so I set of on my hike with just eleven pounds of gear in my backpack: a tent, provisions—and a little royal purple iPod Nano. Even in my monkish minimalism, I knew I needed music. Songs weigh nothing. I carried more than a thousand, all that I wanted to hear; they carried me.
These are a few of the tunes that accompanied me on my walk, that tell my story:
1. "Let's Get Lifted" – John Legend
And I'll have you seeing things and hallucinating / even walking funny cuz your legs are shaking /All night we'll be blazin'
My college experience began with a night of getting stoned with new friends, feeling the lightness of oblivion, touching unfounded epiphanies in the opaque madness of obliteration's senseless joy.
That night, as I sobered, I was raped.
2. "Date Rape" – Sublime
That's when things got out of control / She didn't want to, he had his way / Come on babe it's your lucky day / Shut your mouth, were gonna do it my way.
An upbeat quickening song in which a young woman's rapist gets eternally anally punished in prison for his crime — this judge "knew he was full of shit" — a modern ballad. I paced with it when I was angry.
3. "You're a Big Girl Now" – Bob Dylan
Love is so simple to quote a phrase / You've known it all the time I'm learning it these days
On nights when my father was "good," about three or four nights a week, he would go on an exercise machine he had in his room we all called The Ski Machine for an hour. It was very old and loud, wooden with two old skis sliding on metal tracks. As he worked out, Dylan or sometimes Springsteen blasted from his bedroom's speakers, singing "You're a Big Girl Now," singing songs he loved and that I grew to love, so loud his music played in every room. He told me he had every single song Dylan ever recorded. Whenever anyone asked me what music I liked best, I'd answer, "The music of my father's generation."
I always desperately wanted him to see me. Freshman year, I joined Newton South High School's Nordic Ski team, but just as I began to get good and score in races, Dad threw The Ski Machine away, replaced by a soundless treadmill.
4. "Idiot Wind" – Bob Dylan
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline / which separated you from me
My dad dropped me of at the Tijuana-California border at the start of my journey. He hugged me, I held him back. He had to leave me; I would stay.
He started the rental car and drove up the dirt road, north, away, his dust trail hanging, fully obscuring him. I was at Mexico's edge, alone, my own master, and the sky was boundless and empty and so intensely blue, sunspots deep red in my vision, my eyes straining to see better. A big sandstone monument marked the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. The path looked unexceptional, just a three-foot-wide rut snaking through the dust, over a sandy hill and out of my range of vision. This was the beginning of something almost unending. I stepped down it.
Instead of walking, I ran. North along the dusty trail. The path was marked with yellow rust-streaked signs. Scattered insects and reptiles basked in the sun. I felt I'd discovered a tiny unknown country: hills of dust like open ocean's swells. I was out of shape and knew that my fast pace was not sustainable, but I wanted to get north fast, to get somewhere, and so I ran fast then slow then fast again – fiercely unsure – like a scared kid fleeing a house I suddenly hated.
I had my earphones in, listening hard. I'd heard each song a thousand times, a-forever times, through my life, back in my mother's womb. I knew them by heart, every word, "You're a Big Girl Now," "Idiot Wind," stirring me. How he let me off at the Mexican border and let me go, I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me—You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above, / And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love, and how I wouldn't.
I was sure that the two thousand miles I had to walk would not impress him. There was nothing I could do, nothing grander, And it makes me feel so sorry.
My vision seemed to brighten fiercely, as if it had awoken fully. Sunlit desert, uneven mountains in the distance.
5. "Wild World" – Cat Stevens
But if you wanna leave, take good care / I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear / But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there
My first night sleeping in the desert, far from home and comfort, I pulled my stuffed sleeping bag out and wiggled inside. I made note: the desert is cold at night.
I couldn't fall asleep, felt chilled. I skimmed my hand over the cold tent floor, feeling for my iPod, hoping the old lyrics of treasured songs would transport me somewhere warm. I pictured a rocky beach, late summer trips to the Cape with my mom, the smell of sunscreen and washed-up-dead crabs and salty air. Dylan, Springsteen, Buffalo Springfield, good old Avril Lavigne played, randomly ordered. My Pacific Crest Trail Playlist. I'd put it all together, desperate to blast away, the soundtrack of escape.
But—I'll always remember you like a child, girl. When I truly listened, it was sad.
6. "Going the Distance" – Cake
No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine / He's haunted by something he cannot define
I used to listen to this song as I was getting pumped up for Nordic ski races. On the Pacific Crest Trail, it took me back to the feel of wind on snow and adrenaline—I was doing this. I was tough and I was stronger than anyone knew yet.
7. "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes" – Paul Simon
People say she's crazy / She got diamonds on the soles of her shoes / Well that's one way to lose these / Walking blues
Often in small mountain-towns I'd hunt down Jolly Ranchers at the gas station or tiny country store; I bought bags of them. I picked out just the watermelon ones to take back into the woods with me. I carried rich red lipstick the whole way, though I seldom wore it.
I was impractical, I was human.
8. "Snow" – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The more I see, the less I know / The more I'd like to let it go
This song made me so happy, I don't know why! It's about getting high—cocaine or heroin: snow—being lost and floating. We don't really know anything, we're discovering everything, hungry. Listening, I felt light like Kerouac: unburdened but also disconnected—with nothing to offer anyone except my own confusion.
9. "Killing Me Softly" – Roberta Flack (cover)
And there he was this young boy / a stranger to my eye / strumming my fate with his fingers / singing my life with his words
After two thousand miles of walking, I met a man who was also hiking from Mexico, toward Canada—following the Pacific Crest Trail, like me. For three months we'd been within a few-days' walk of each other, trekking in northward in near-perfect sync, and when we finally met it felt like fate.
A girl on the trail nicknamed Songbird played us this song beside a campfire we'd made in the woods.
10. "Fidelity" - Regina Spektor
I never loved nobody fully / Always one foot on the ground
I heard this song in my miles with this man, trailing him slyly grinning. I fell.
11. "The Luckiest" - Ben Folds
And in a white sea of eyes / I see one pair that I recognize / And I know
That I am / I am / I am / The luckiest
Ben Folds had been a voice in my mind since childhood. When I was in high school and took my mother's car to drive away to New Hampshire's White Mountains, zooming north from Boston, I was listening to Ben Folds' album Rockin' the Suburbs. I loved his irreverence but more than that a whimsical gentle playfulness that made my whole body feel lighter.
I returned to Folds on the trail—and then at my wedding, when I married the kind man I'd met in the woods.
I never could have predicted that Ben Folds would someday read my stories, and love them also. Or that we'd become friends and take walks in Santa Monica, in New York—pretty cities in the middle of the night, in the flesh.
12. "Painting by Chagall" – The Weepies
Sometimes rain that's needed falls / And everybody says you can't you can't don't try / Still everybody says that if they had the chance they'd fly like we do
From the unremarkable gap in dense Northern forest—the border—I could finally see clearly that if I hadn't walked away from school, through devastating beauty alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, met rattlesnakes and bears, fording frigid and remote rivers as deep as I am tall – feeling terror and the gratitude that followed the realization that I'd survived rape – I'd have remained lost, maybe for my whole life. The trail had shown me how to change.
Striding swiftly, nearing the Canadian border, I had become a force. I could do it, I had done it—every hard drop of rain that had fallen had been necessary.
13. "Anyone Else But You" – The Moldy Peaches (Cover by Ellen Page + Michael Cera)
Pebbles forgive me / the trees forgive me
The man I'd met in the woods and had fell into wild love. A year from the day we'd met on our long hikes, we returned to the Pacific Northwest's Cascade Mountains and married. This song played in sweet spurts through our ceremony, isolated verses, the lyrics conversing with our marriage vows.
Living in woods, I had sweat and bruised, walked boldly through snow and shame and pain. I faced obstacles and monsters and had some very thirsty miles, dark nights, freezing mornings and dreamlike days of fear of starving in which I came close to dying; I'd made it past desert sunspots: my own blindness.
I was cupping my wedding flowers, and I stepped outside into a garden, down a lawn. I walked over a new scattering of petals in my heels, happy, ready.
I remembered my father's music — You're a big girl now, And hard like an oak, Buckets of moonbeams in my hand. These mantras lulled my mind to solace: constant rhythms of love that that had propelled me all this way.
Aspen Matis and Girl in the Woods links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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