You Remind Me of Something
In summer 2013, just after my son was born, I was listening to a lot of Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Specifically, I kept returning to Lie Down in the Light, Will Oldham’s thirteenth album and his eighth as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. I was living in Bloomington, Indiana, about equidistant from Oldham’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky and the farm where I grew up, about a mile south of Economy, Indiana. Silas is my second child. Ada was three at the time, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I would have been drawn to an album that, according to a reviewer, “finds peace in the modest pleasures of friends, family, and music.”
One song that I played over and over for Silas when he was an infant (and even now, when he is a boy) was the album’s second track, “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes).” It’s a scene of home, a mostly happy one, that I hear as a celebration both of the speaker’s current life, reveling in midnight clothes/among the wicked, and of the people who helped him get there.
In the middle of all that—the revelry, the house newly full of children, the projecting forward into a lively, chaotic future—in the middle of all that happiness, in September 2013, Jim Phipps died. I met Jim in summer 1995 at Hoosier Boys State. I was just about to enter my senior year at Hagerstown High School, and the American Legion sponsored me and my friend Eric to spend a week in Terre Haute electing and running a mock state government. Jim was one of eight assistant deans overseeing the counselors and teaching classes on state and local governance.
To this kid from a small town, stubborn but mostly compliant, who had never traveled by himself, Jim was immediately noticeable. He was a big man—tall and fat, with a full white beard that covered his shirt collar—but I was drawn to him because of his demeanor. He was commanding but giggly, with a wrinkle at the corner of his eyes where you could see him both smiling and sizing you up. Jim’s mischievousness comes back to me as I hear Oldham sing about his mother:
And my mother is a good one,
As they go.
She does not condone the actions
That I do that she don’t know.
She swears nightly before resting
That I give her soul a testing
When I sing this song
That does not end.
Jim was endlessly loud, and he could look at you sideways so you’d see he knew he was getting away with something. But he wasn’t simply a prankster. He also challenged people and institutions—punching up, always. This quality was especially evident the year I attended Boys State because there was a simmering feud among HBS leadership about whether it was acceptable to wear hats in the dining hall. Some of the Legionnaires bristled at young counselors wearing their hats inside. Jim, who was also a veteran, felt that was awfully rigid for high school and college students who were not and never had been in the military. He took to not only wearing a hat but also calling attention to himself and the fact that he was doing so.
Jim reveled in his work with HBS and, like Oldham sings, he gave her soul a testing—to the betterment of the organization and to the benefit of countless boys like me. A couple years later, I returned as a counselor, then went back every summer until I left the country to teach English in Burkina Faso, West Africa. I wrote to Jim throughout my time in Peace Corps, and his replies challenged me to think more broadly about living overseas, about the correspondences between the Midwest and the Mossi Plateau. He did the same thing when I was applying to graduate schools. After reading several drafts of my application essay and demanding, repeatedly, that I learn to communicate beyond a mode of earnest simplicity (he may have failed), with a great Midwestern backhandedness, a sweet belligerence, he told me my writing style was not, after all, “wholly fucked.” When I moved to Bloomington, Elin and I finally made it up to Greencastle for a visit. Jim married us the next fall.
When Jim died, I hadn’t seen him for a few years. And then I began to locate him in those same lines I’d been connecting to Silas. Jim was one of the men who taught me, like Bonnie “Prince” Billy sings, to value the people and places where smiles break free/and surprise is your friend. And his willingness to speak up for those counselors helped me learn to stand with the “wicked,” both in public and in private communion, no matter the petty tyrants. Oldham similarly opens “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes)”:
Well the glory goes to those
Who do not seek it,
Reveling in midnight clothes
Among the wicked,
Picking scabs from off their skin
And rolling holy deeply in
To the rhythm called the song
That does not end.
Walking by Jim’s door in the dorms at Indiana State, you could hear him laughing with his counselors—those same young people scolded by the men in charge. Jim inspired devotion because he cared, and he supported you, and he was joyful. This was an important lesson for a compulsive rule-follower. Eventually I’d be in that room, too, a newbie alongside some he had known for years.
I met Jim just as I was coming into adulthood, because of a kind of institutional happenstance—and then he became one of the most influential men in my life, meaningful in a way I couldn’t have predicted. His return to mind, too, was unexpected, coming as it did through the close succession of Silas’s birth and Jim’s death and my own repeated listening of “You Remind Me of Something.” There is something in the sweetness of this song’s memory that insists upon hearing the past at once with the present, so maybe it’s natural that I would relate this song to Jim, as a mirror of the relationship I have with my son. And it’s all in there: lessons about family, about celebrations, about caring for each other.
But it’s not such an easy parallel. I mean, I have a dad. To paraphrase Bonnie “Prince” Billy, he’s a good one (as they go). Even more than that, this particular song conjures an inner melody that doesn’t track with my own experiences of either of these relationships. When Oldham hits the chorus—You remind me of something/a song that I am and you/sing me back into myself—he recalls something he has forgotten. I suppose that’s the difference. Jim didn’t sing me back into anything. He sang, and I started to come into myself. If he reminded me of something, it’s that there were options. Jim’s mercy and good works let me see possibilities I hadn’t considered.
So maybe here’s what I take from Jim, and from this song, and from the way it makes me journey from my son’s life to Jim’s death, and to think back to how we were connected from Economy to Greencastle, by way of Terre Haute—to recall the way those intimacies began, and the ways they both ended and did not. This is a melancholy feeling, this piecemeal letting-go, but that openness is also sustaining, and when I think about myself and Jim, and maybe Silas and some future Jim, I find myself in wonder at something/so sweet and so long.