Joni Mitchell’s Blue may have been released one summer seven years before I was born, but it’s a winter album that conjures memories of me, my mom, and my little sister.
There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes / And sometimes there’ll be sorrow.
In the height of the 1980s, when we were living in Eagle Heights married student housing in Madison, Wisconsin, where my mom was studying for her master’s in speech pathology, she would put the album on the record player. When we moved back to the Ozarks for the ’90s it came with us, along with one of those oval braided rugs that always found a spot in our den, all worn and fuzzed out in a muted brown palate. She only played Blue when my dad was out of the house. Joni’s high clear voice, and maybe her unabashed confessionalism, grated on his nerves. Saturday afternoons, all the curtains pulled up to let the sunlight drench our tiny apartment or our modest rental house—there were so many in my childhood—my mom swept the hardwood floors and made chamomile tea with honey for me and my sister. “Carey get out your cane, and I’ll put on some silver. Boy you’re a mean old daddy but I like you,” my mom would sing swinging our arms as she sprayed down the bookshelf with Pledge.
It’s coming on Christmas / They’re cutting down trees / They’re putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace / Oh, I wish I had a river / I could skate away on.
Maybe it’s a winter album for me because of “River,” in which the opening piano melody references “Jingle Bells,” in a minor keyed slowed down lilted ballad sort of way. When my sister moved out to Portland, Oregon, after high school the distance brought us closer. I put “River” on one of the many mixtapes we exchanged, all decorated with magazine page collages and maybe some sparkly hello kitty stickers.
We’d not been all that close in high school. She was the rebel in the alternative “school within a school” program—all combat boots, sneaking out through the window after our parents went to bed, and cigarettes, booze and other illicitness. I was in all the AP classes I could sign up for, the lit mag staff and the school choir. Though we seemed opposite there was some common ground, mostly in our love of singer-songwriters, and especially Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
I want to knit you a sweater / Want to write you a love letter / I want to make you feel better/I want to make you feel free
It’s 1 a.m. on the eve of Thanksgiving and this is the first time I’ve written in months. My husband and two-year-old daughter are asleep, this is the only time I can steal for myself, and I can hear the bass line and drunken shouts from the nightclub next door. The trees so recently ablaze now show off their nakedness, some studded by bunches of mistletoe dangling on the highest branches, taunting me to try and climb up so I can snip off some of that winter magnificence. I was planning to make pie crusts, but instead I am writing this. I’ve made so many pie crusts, carefully flicking tablespoons one at a time of ice cold water or juice—apple works well—onto the flour cut into breadcrumb sized bits with decadent butter. The alchemy of pie, particularly the crust, is the closest thing I ever get to meditation. Although I need some of that stillness now, I am writing about Blue because this is the time of year when it calls to me the most and because there is always something other than writing that I’m supposed to be doing. And here I am thinking of frost bitten pinkies, instant hot cocoa with miniature marshmallows, the Christmas stocking my now dead grandma made for me not long after I was born, adorned with a sequined image of a girl in her bed dreaming of sugarplums. My grandma loved the holidays, was the holidays—the cheer, the gifts, the family around the fireplace, the huge Thanksgiving dinners of thirty members of the extended family. After she died of cancer, only in her fifties, holidays weren’t the same. The sheen of the metallic garland dinned, the family dinners shrunk and turned into boxes of take-out.
Everybody’s saying / that hell’s the hippest way to go / Well I don’t think so / But I’m gonna take a look around it though / Blue, I love you.
Bliss, melancholy—Blue is both at once, just as the holiday season is for me. Unabashedly sentimental, devoid of irony, Joni Mitchell tells stories of love and loneliness and somehow manages to keep her songs simple, pure and unadorned. When I listen to Blue I am alone. I am also a kid again, dancing and singing along with my mother and sister. I am the fragile twentysomething constantly getting her heart broken. I am the new mother trading in sleep for a solitary moment to write. I am at once shattered and glowing.