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February 21, 2017

Book Notes - Shannon Leone Fowler "Traveling with Ghosts"

Traveling with Ghosts

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Shannon Leone Fowler's memoir Traveling with Ghosts is a compelling and poignant book about love, grief, and recovery.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Fowler has turned her devastating, beautiful, honest, and personal story into something universal. Akin to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (2012), her book will appeal to globetrotters and readers of hopeful stories chronicling grief and recovery."

In her own words, here is Shannon Leone Fowler's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Traveling with Ghosts:

Traveling with Ghosts: A Memoir is about my fiancé, Sean. It’s about our relationship, his sudden death in 2002, and the solo journey I took through Eastern Europe in the months that followed. So it might seem strange to say, fourteen years later, that I had fun putting together this playlist. Now a single mum of three young kids, it wasn’t only that I could put on a great song from my younger days, turn it up, and tell myself I was working. It was more because I hadn’t realized what a huge role music had played in my relationship with Sean.

We’d grown up on other sides of the world—I’m from California and Sean was from Melbourne—so we first connected introducing each other to music. He got me into Powderfinger, and for a while I was known among his friends as the chick who turned him on to Ben Harper. We met backpacking through Western Europe, where Sean traveled with a Discman and tinny, portable travel speakers. We listened to music all the time together, especially in bed. We made each other mix tapes while we were apart, that we sent in the post. And after he died, I found meaning in the lyrics of almost every song.

I’ve stuck with the versions of the songs I used to listen to, as that’s where the memories are. Traveling with Ghosts bounces around a lot in time and place, which made it difficult to put the songs in any kind of order that would mirror the book. So I’ve kept the songs in the chronological order they appeared in my life.

“Castles Made of Sand,” The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Axis: Bold as Love

“And so castles made of sand, fall in the sea, eventually.”

There’s a scene in the book in Essaouira, Morocco where a local guide takes Sean and me by camel to see Hendrix’s inspiration for this song—an eighteenth century watchtower now sinking into the sea. It was February 1999; Sean and I had only just met. We were traveling with two other young Australian backpackers, and this was our first excursion just the two of us.

We later found out Hendrix had written the song two years before visiting Morocco. And after Sean died in the ocean—stung by a box jellyfish while we were vacationing in Thailand, the lyrics seemed to represent promises crumbling.

“Too Young to Die,” Jamiroquai, Emergency on Planet Earth

“To put this sad world right.
So don’t you worry,
Suffer no more,
‘Cos we’re too young to die.”

This song also features in a scene in Traveling with Ghosts—my twenty-fifth birthday, March 1999, with Sean in Bled, Slovenia. Sean had introduced me to Jamiroquai, and he bought me this CD for my birthday. We listened to the tracks as he cooked chicken satay, and as we drank cheap white wine out on the balcony. I later put the song on a mix tape I sent to him in Ireland. As with so many of the tracks on this list, the lyrics took on a different meaning for me after his death.

“My Happiness,” Powderfinger, Odyssey Number Five

“If you’re over there when I need you here.”

Powderfinger has always been my favorite of the bands Sean introduced me to. Their CD, Internationalist, was on heavy rotation as we traveled through Europe together in 1999. After that first trip, Sean and I had extended periods of long distance: I was teaching SCUBA in the Caribbean while he worked as a cook in Ireland, I studied Australian sea lions on Kangaroo Island while he worked for Cadbury-Schweppes in Melbourne, I was doing PhD course work in California while he taught marketing in China. This song is about the pain of long distance, and reminds me now of those much simpler times.

“New York, New York,” Ryan Adams, Gold

“Had myself a lover who was finer than gold
But I've been broken up and busted up since.
And love don't play any games with me, anymore
Like she did before.”

In late 2001, Sean and I listened to this album all the time. He bought me the CD for Christmas that year, the first and only Christmas I ever spent with his family.

Like many people, this particular track reminds me of 9/11. I was on Kangaroo Island that day, but had already booked a flight to visit Sean in Melbourne for the day after. I remember the stunned airport employees, and sitting with Sean watching the TV as the towers fell over and over and over.

I was supposed to fly out of Melbourne for a quick holiday on my own in Thailand. But they’d closed the airports soon after I’d landed and no one was sure when they would open again. My parents were panicking. But Sean was the one to talk me into canceling the trip. If I hadn’t, Sean and I would have almost certainly chosen a different country for our vacation a year later. And he’d still be alive.

“A holiday is not worth making your parents miserable,” he’d said. “Thailand will always be there. I’ll go with you.”

“Bubble Toes,” Jack Johnson, Brushfire Fairytales

“When you move like a jellyfish,
Rhythm don’t mean nothing”

In 2001 and 2002, I did many road trips between my field site on Kangaroo Island and Sean’s flat in Melbourne. My car was so old, it only had a tape deck and Brushfire Fairytales was often in it. During an early scene in the book, “Bubble Toes” is playing on the stereo when I first arrive on the island and am trying to find my way around in the dark.

After Sean’s death, more than once, someone tried to pull me up to dance to this song. Coming for me, grinning and waving their arms around like a jellyfish. These lyrics, that new Bridget Jones novel, an old episode of Friends—jellyfish suddenly seemed to be everywhere, inescapable.

“Don’t Forget Me,” Red Hot Chili Peppers, By the Way

“I’m an ocean in your bedroom.”

Sean and I had tickets to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers together in Melbourne on December 1, 2002. I went to visit him in China in July, and we bought By the Way, gearing up for the concert. We’d go to karaoke with his students, and he’d almost always pick a Pepper’s song, "Scar Tissue" or "Breaking the Girl." When Sean died August 9th, these tickets somehow seemed to be yet another piece of evidence that his death was a mistake.

“Mr. Jones,” Counting Crows, August and Everything After

“Help me believe in anything”

This song is the last song Sean ever heard, as we danced together barefoot up and down Haad Rin Nok beach on Ko Pha Ngan island. It’s haunted me ever since. Decades after it’s release, “Mr. Jones” still appears to be a favorite for bar and restaurant playlists all over the world. It actually came on last night, while I was out with a couple of other single mums at the Balham Arms in London, and immediately after they’d asked about my upcoming book.

I never really noticed the album title until I started writing this piece. Since Sean died in August and the book starts there, August and Everything After could have been the title of my memoir.

“Walk Away,” Ben Harper, Welcome to the Cruel World

“Oh no, here comes that sun again
That means another day
Without you my friend.
And it hurts me
To look into the mirror at myself”

Sean and I listened to a lot of Ben Harper. He’d always ask me to put on “the dancing song” before jiggling around to "Homeless Child," as he does at one point in Salamanca, Spain in Traveling with Ghosts.

The day after he died on Ko Pha Ngan, I woke up and "Walk Away’s" opening lyrics (above) got stuck in my head and stayed there for days. I was dealing with the police, his insurance, his family, and the Australian consulate—trying to get his body released and off the island, and these words became the sound track only I could hear.

“In My Life,” The Beatles, Rubber Soul

“In my life, I love you more.”

Sean always referred to The Beatles as “The Boys.” Every mix tape he made would have at least one of their songs. His father, a friend, and I chose the music for Sean’s funeral and there was no question that there would be a couple of Beatles’ songs played. “But of all these friends and lovers / There is no one compares with you / And these memories lose their meaning / When I think of love as something new.”

“Don’t Dream It’s Over,” Crowded House, Crowded House

“But you'll never see the end of the road
While you're traveling with me
Hey now, hey now
Don’t dream it’s over.”

Crowded House was formed in Melbourne in 1985, and I don’t know that I’ve met an Aussie of my generation, certainly not a Melbournian, who didn’t have a strong sense of attachment and pride associated with the band. Sean also had some story he and his mates thought was hilarious about how drunk he got at his first ever gig, watching Crowded House play. This song as well was played at his funeral.

“Say Hello, Wave Goodbye,” David Gray, White Ladder

“Take a look at my face
For the last time.”

One last track played at his funeral, and another song that has continued to haunt me for years after. Recently, I took an overnight trip to Bournemouth on the UK’s south coast to try to write an essay related to Traveling with Ghosts, about how my relationship with the ocean has changed since Sean’s death. I was having dinner alone at Urban Reef—oysters and risotto and wine. It would be Sean’s fortieth birthday the next day, had been fourteen years since he died. The white lights above me shaped like life-rings, and this song came on to the stereo.

“Goodbye,” Patty Griffin, Flaming Red

“And I wonder where you are
And if the pain ends when you die
And I wonder if there was
Some better way to say goodbye
Today my heart is big and sore
It's tryin' to push right through my skin
I won't see you anymore
I guess that's finally sinkin' in.”

After Sean’s funeral in Melbourne, I returned briefly to California before running away to Eastern Europe. My mum owned this album, and every single time we were in the car together that month in September 2002, I played this song over and over again. The lyrics, and the ache in Griffin’s voice, spoke to me in a way nothing else was able to at the time.

“Summertime,” Janis Joplin, Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits

“No, no, no, no, don't you cry”

This is from a scene in the book, not long after I arrived in Eastern Europe. The night before Sean’s birthday again, but back in 2002, when he should have been turning twenty-six and had been dead only eleven weeks. I was sitting alone in a smoky café in Sopron, Hungary, surrounded by couples and shivering in my winter coat because of the icy draught by the door. The band playing Summertime, though it took me a while to recognize it through their thick Hungarian accents. Everything just felt wrong, and I had no idea what I was doing there.

“Hejnał Mariacki (The Cracow Bugle-call)”, Marek Skwarczynski

I first heard the Hejnał Mariacki, or St Mary’s Dawn, in Kraków, Poland on November 1, 2002. It’s played every hour on the hour by a single trumpeter in the highest tower of Kościół Mariacki, or St. Mary’s Church.

Local legend tells that early one morning in 1241, a lone guard spied approaching Tatar forces. Playing the Hejnał on his trumpet, he woke the residents in time to defend the city. Even as an arrow pierced his throat, and the warning was stopped short.

This song—five simple, direct, drawn-out notes still cut short today—started a shift in the way I was traveling through Eastern Europe. I began to pay attention to the histories of the scarred landscapes, and to the stories of the people left behind.

“All the Things She Said,” t.A.T.u., 200 km/h in the Wrong Lane

“I keep asking myself, wondering how
I keep closing my eyes but I can't block you out”

This song is all about time and place for me. More than any other track, it brings me back to Eastern Europe that winter of 2002. I traveled alone though Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Croatia, Bosnia, Romania, Bulgaria. It was the same handful of songs playing everywhere, but this was the only one from the Eastern Bloc. The girls’ repetition of the chorus, “Running through my head / Running through my head / Running through my head” matched my own mental state at the time.

“The Scientist,” Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head

“Tell me you love me
Come back and haunt me.”

“The Scientist” was another song on heavy rotation that winter. I heard the track throughout my travels—A Rush of Blood to the Head is playing at The Bar in Sarajevo in the book. But I didn’t see the video until I got to Sofia, Bulgaria at the very end of my journey. I remember stopping, frozen, in the hostel lobby and staring at the TV when I saw his dead lover come back through the car’s windshield. Since Traveling with Ghosts ends with Sean and me leaving Shànghăi, about to fly to Thailand, this feels like the song to end on. “Oh, take me back to the start.”

Shannon Leone Fowler and Traveling with Ghosts links:

excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
USA Today review

Santa Cruz Sentinel profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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