Watch & Listen

Portrait in Blue

By Emma Eisler

My aunt gave me Blue before I was ready. Eight-years-old, wide-eyed, and string-bean-gangly, I didn’t know what Joni was singing about, didn’t feel it in my skin. She sounded sad, like she was feeling something very strongly that I didn’t have a name for. Still, the album cover remained in my mind even as the case grew dusty—downcast eyes and light on her cheek; a silhouette in navy.  

I can’t watch Love Actually without crying at the part when Emma Thompson’s character, Karen, opens her husband’s Christmas gift to find a copy of Both Sides Now, and realizes that he gave another woman the diamond necklace she saw in his coat pocket. She takes the CD upstairs, puts it on and starts to cry.“Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels / The dizzy dancing way you feel…” A moment later, she wipes her eyes, walks back down the stairs, and tells her children to put on their coats so they can leave for their school play. There’s something about Joni, I think, that lets us do this—feel everything for a moment, then go into the bathroom and fix our makeup, to step out and face what most frightens us or what’s most painful. Joni teaches us vulnerability, yet she also teaches us strength. She’s there with us at our most agonizing moments, when sadness fills us up completely and threatens to overflow out of us in blue, blue, blue. But she also teaches us that there is no love without pain, and reminds us that we can survive whatever it is we’re going through. 

Earlier in the movie, Karen tells her husband, “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to love.” 

Joni taught me how to love too. 

Emma Eisler for Portrait in Blue 2
Art by Emma Eisler

In high school, I loved a girl who I couldn’t be with. I’d drive along the coast singing along to the CD my aunt gave to me at eight, that I had since rediscovered; “I am on a lonely road and / I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling.” Or I’d close my eyes and sway in my room, let my body fill up with Joni’s voice, and my heart with pain and love. For a while, the only music I could bear was Blue. Only Joni could understand the tears that leaked onto my pillow each night or how my whole body ached when I saw the girl I loved talking to her boyfriend. I thought of myself at eight, unable to fully understand the pain in Joni’s voice. Now the album was so beautiful and made so much sense that I couldn’t, even then, regret learning this pain and love. 

During my gap year, Blue became the sounds of the deserts I traveled through, of morning light shining through my dusty windshield, of sunrises pink and red over sand and wash. Again, I was in love—with a boy and with a landscape. My clothes, caked in dirt, washed over and over in laundromats across the Southwest. Naked, my skin gleaming under skies splashed with the pale white of the Milky Way, kissing in the green pools of rivers winding beneath arches in rock. So often, I thought to myself, I only want this. But already college was beckoning in the foreground, and I could not stay forever a Lady of the Canyon, so Blue also became the sound of driving away. 

Emma Eisler for Portrait in Blue 1
Art by Emma Eisler

Before leaving for winter break this year, my best friend left me her record player and a copy of Blue since she would be studying abroad in the spring. Standing alone in my room in January, the heater wheezing lukewarm air against frosted window panes, the semester seemed to stretch on in front of me like large and lapping dark water. Who was I here without her? What would these months be but cold? 

I slid the record from its case, lifted the needle, and let the album start to play. I looked at the photos taped above my bed; fairy-lights hanging over the pipe casting my room in yellow-gold; books stacked too high and threatening to tumble. I thought of my best friend who I missed already with a kind of hollow ache. I thought of the person I was in high school listening to that same album, closing my eyes and feeling everything. What love or loneliness could I have that wouldn’t be contained in Blue? I acknowledged to myself that I didn’t know yet what this part of my life would be. I smiled, half sad and half anticipating. 

Soon after, I started staying up late with a boy in my house who made me feel shy and flushed—but who also left me feeling overwhelmed by a desire to tell him more and more, and to know him as well as I possibly could. On afternoons when I got out of class early, I’d go home and turn on Blue, try not to think of his smile or eyes, the way I felt when our arms occasionally brushed. I’d listen over the sound of the music for his voice downstairs, then hurry to the living room, half afraid and half hoping he’d look at me and smile. The night he told me he liked me, I lay in bed and listened to Blue over and over until light began to seep through my window. I fell in love (again) to the sound of Joni singing; “Hey Blue, here is a song for you…” 

Over February break, he and I did shrooms together. While he was talking to someone else, I ran up to my room, lit my favorite rose-scented candle, and turned on Blue. All around me was the softness of afternoon light. I turned to the mirror; curls that hovered over my shoulders and appeared then inflected by purple and rainbow. My hands left traces in the air as I spun and danced; how beautiful I felt—how completely my own. My boyfriend came in, and I threw my arms around him and said, “I’m doing all the things I like!” 

The music swirled around me, and I felt it more as something inside of me than as an external sound. I felt a kind of tenderness for myself, for my easily bruised heart, for my treasured room and its familiar songs and photographs. “Carey” came on, and I started laughing, giggling along; “Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here, but it’s / Really not my home.” My hand rested on his arm; his fingers traced over my skin. This floating little room suffused in warmth. What I wanted was to hold on to this moment forever, to be home in a way that meant I never had to leave or change. 

Emma Eisler for Portrait in Blue 3
Art by Emma Eisler

Later that day, the shrooms started to wear off and my euphoria faded into something more complicated. I remembered my insecurities—my tangled hair, and skin I never quite know how to feel comfortable in. Again, I went upstairs and turned on Blue. I looked up and imagined each poster peeling off the wall, my photographs in shoeboxes growing sepia around the edges.  This is the way I love, I thought, defining each moment of joy by the anticipation of its ending. Each touch seems already inflected by the last, and every love seems viewed already through the rearview mirror. 

Soon after, my boyfriend came up to my room, and held me against him as the record spun and tears dampened my pillow. I confessed, “I’m worried you’ll see more of me or you’ll see the way that I love, and you won’t like it or want to be with me anymore.” He said that wasn’t true, held me as the record turned, and the people in my photographs danced and waved, beckoning to a past already lost to the tea-stained pages of journals. 

I still listen to Blue. In Ithaca, watching April snow dampen new blooms, and feeling impossibly far from my other home. Here, after so many other people have left, when my life—and the world—seems frozen in place even as the seasons change out the window. Here, with my boyfriend still, with the love that I feel at times like a shard of glass in my chest, a reminder that I can be hurt. Joni sings on, “And I might have stayed on with him there / But my heart cried out for you, California / Oh California, I’m coming home.” I don’t know when exactly I’ll leave or what it will look like when I do. I imagine my hair whipping in front of my eyes, blowing out the window. I imagine orange flowers springing up along the coast of California and wonder when redwoods will rise above me again, and what my goodbyes will mean. How, I long to ask Joni, am I to live with such uncertainty?  

For me, Blue is about emotional complexity. Blue is eight years old before the sounds meant anything to me, when all I saw was a photo of a woman filled up with the color of sea and sky and tears. Blue is seventeen, my childhood room, and everything on the cusp of changing. Blue is a place I look forward and back to simultaneously, a sound that curls around me like the ocean in a seashell, washes over me again and again until each love loses its outline and the events of my life fade and blur together; listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.  

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