🎧 The Sun Come Up | A Story and a Song Episode 2

Tom Waits' "Picture in a Frame" and "House Where Nobody Lives."

  
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A Story and a Song Episode 2 Transcript:

Welcome to A Story and a Song, where I, Brian Leli, tell you a story about a song that someone else wrote but I like to play, and then I play it. This episode's song is Tom Waits' "Picture in a Frame." It's also Waits' "House Where Nobody Lives." Because it had to be. Here's my story.


There's a restaurant in the town where I live called Aroy One Baht. It sits at the top of a little incline on a corner overlooking the weekend market and walking street. It's two levels and mostly open air with dark wooden tables and, at night, lights like exaggerated, artificial stars. The food is great and comes fast, in a flow of constant movement. I don't think I've ever waited for a table, even though the place is often full. It's been less so since Covid hit. But they seem to be bouncing back okay. It's that kind of a place. The kind of place you want to go and eat, the kind of place you want to always be there, and the kind of place you want to see bounce back okay. And it's a place where you eventually end up if you end up in Lampang. I could see it from the hotel where I spent my first few nights here in 2013. So I ended up there pretty quickly.

I don't remember what I ordered on that first visit. But I kept going back, and I know it didn't take long to discover what I would order almost every time I did: the yellow curry tofu; that and a little plastic bowl of rice. It wasn't much. But I didn't need or want much then. In fact, with most things, I actively avoided having too much. In my first year here, I never turned on my air conditioner; never plugged in my refrigerator; never had much more to eat or drink in my apartment than tea, a bottle of water, a bag of muesli, and a single mug, bowl, and spoon. I'd bought a bunch of black clothes before I got here, so my clothes-shopping was done. I was also years deep into my habit of avoiding relationships by then—the same relationships I craved. And that was, and in many ways still is, my central dilemma.

How do I reconcile my bottomless desire to be alone with this other desire I have to connect deeply with others?

Not helping this dilemma was the fact that I'd become almost addicted to craving things. This is also something I still carry remnants of. I like the feeling of fasting, both literally and figuratively, and seeing what arises in the absence of things.

Still, I did want more out of life. I wanted a lot more. I just didn't know what. There just seemed to be something missing. Something internal. Something fundamental. Something spiritual. Something unlocking. Something. The good stuff. I wanted the good stuff. The potent stuff of mind and spirit. The stuff that would make me feel the way other people looked to me. And I guess I was addicted to that craving, too. In any event, dinner was less important. For dinner, I just wanted the yellow curry tofu and my little plastic bowl of rice, and I wanted it every time.

So most weekend nights, I'd ride my bike over the superhighway and down toward the river to Aroy One Baht. I'd order the usual, and then I'd sit and read. At the time, I did all of my reading on an old iPod touch. I'd grown obsessed with the stories of George Saunders. So I'd sit there reading and re-reading them. One of my favorites was "The 400-Pound CEO." At its core, the story is about a lonely man with low self-esteem who wants only some basic affection and companionship and self-respect in his life. Importantly, it's also a story about a man for whom all of this seems out of reach. He's kind of sweet, but also kind of a loser. He's grossly overweight, and his co-workers mock him for this and just about everything else. To make matters worse, he also pines for one of those co-workers, the company's "document placement and retrieval specialist," who's only slightly less cruel to him than the others. The story ends badly for the man, but movingly for the readers who can relate to the feeling that they just came out of the box wrong.


Here's part of what I should warn you are the last few paragraphs of that story. I don't remember if I read them for the first time in Aroy One Baht. But I know that I re-read them there many times.

I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly un-likable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.

[...]

Maybe the God we see, the God who calls the daily shots, is merely a subGod. Maybe there’s a God above this subGod, who’s busy for a few Godminutes with something else, and will be right back, and when he gets back will take the subGod by the ear and say, “Now look. Look at that fat man. What did he ever do to you? Wasn’t he humble enough? Didn’t he endure enough abuse for a thousand men? Weren’t the simplest tasks hard? Didn’t you sense him craving affection? Were you unaware that his days unraveled as one long bad dream?” And maybe as the subGod slinks away, the true God will sweep me up in his arms, saying: My sincere apologies, a mistake has been made. Accept a new birth, as token of my esteem.

And I will emerge again from between the legs of my mother, a slighter and more beautiful baby, destined for a different life, in which I am masterful, sleek as a deer, a winner.


Can you relate to any of that? I can. The particulars are different. But the feeling is all too familiar. I remember reading the story all those years ago and holding back tears. But they weren't sad or self-pitying tears. They were tears of awe and joy.

Awe as a writer because I was emboldened and inspired by the story, gutted and floored by its sheer power.

And joy as a reader because I felt moved and comforted by the story. I saw myself in it, and I still do now; I see what I still feel sometimes, and it brings the best kind of tears to my eyes. It makes me feel like I exist more than I did before reading it. And it makes me feel like I exist in a less damaged and less isolated state. It makes me feel alive. And relief. Relief for what, I don’t really know. But I guess just relief that it's still possible to feel anything that much, to feel that alive with something, anything, to feel that full.


Reading Saunders was a big part of my weekend nights. I'd eat and read a story or two, and then I'd walk around, alone but with people. When I got tired of walking, I'd get back on my bike and ride back to my little box on the other side of the highway.

Then, in the morning, I'd ride right bike, past the closed Aroy One Baht and down the hill to the daylight ghost of the walking street. There was a coffee shop there where I'd sit and drink coffee and write. After I'd written all I could, I'd ride my bike over the river and in all the directions that kept me on smaller roads. Often, I'd end up riding on a long straight road that ran beside some train tracks. I didn't know it at the time, but I was riding past the village where the woman I would years later meet and fall in love with lived.


But first, I left Thailand, in March 2014.

I've lived in a few countries in the last 10 years or so. And upon leaving each of them, I've almost always returned to Chicago for a time, just to get my bearings and figure out what's next. And whenever I went back, it wasn't long before I ended up at the Chicago Cultural Center. The hours and days and encounters I've had there, the sights and smells I've witnessed, the lives and worlds I've glimpsed into, or at least imagined myself glimpsing approximately into, are in my DNA now.

After I lived in London for about a year, in the months before I first moved to Thailand, I practically lived at the Cultural Center. I worked on finishing up a book of photos and writings from London. But I also wrote some new things. One day, in November 2012, as an entry point into writing... something, I typed the words "Dear Tom Waits." Over the years, Waits had become a kind of warm and consoling figure in my mind. So after I typed those words, and I suddenly had Waits as my warm and consoling imaginary reader, I suddenly had some things to share. Here's what I wrote:

Dear Tom Waits,

Did you know that if you fall asleep at the Chicago Cultural Center the security guards will wake you up? It’s never happened to me before, but I’ve seen it happen to other people. You can’t do that here.

Tom, if you go to the Cultural Center to sit and work in the morning, and you make it all the way through to the afternoon, there is often live music to be heard. I’ve seen this firsthand many times. I can attest to it personally.

I don’t get out to too many live shows these days, Tom. I don’t really have any money, and any ideas I have about where it might come from next are dreamlike at best. So I take the free stuff when I can get it.

When it comes during lunchtime at the Cultural Center, I like to watch the people watching the band, instead of watching the band itself. This is partly because I sit way in the back and find it hard to see around the pillars. But it’s also partly because I find the leveling effect that music has on a room full of people more interesting than the people on the stage who look as though they feel more awkward than anything else playing at lunchtime in a room full of tourists and senior citizens and kids and men and women on their phones and laptops and homeless people who are not allowed to sleep here and the directionless man in the back who sometimes looks at peace with himself and then other times looks as though he’s going to smile or cry as he looks everywhere but toward the stage.

Most of the people watching the band look as one might expect. They wear one-size-fits-all baseball caps, one layer of clothing too much or too little. They look caught off guard by the wind or the cold or the heat. They carry Venti Starbucks cups with lipstick stains on the lids. They look excited because they haven’t been coming here day after day yet, and the odds are pretty good that they never will.

When the sounds are just background sounds the people sitting in the room read books and newspapers and move their feet somewhere near the rhythm without ever actually touching it. When they look up at the band they usually smile like they might smile if they were playing with a baby. But this all stops when the sounds start to come from a place of sincerity. (Tom, I’m sure you know this already, but most musicians who play for any real length of time will tap into this place at some point or another; even the bad and mediocre ones will; skill level and sincerity are not at all synonymous, in fact, Tom; again though, I’m sure that you already know this.)

When the sounds start to come from a place of sincerity, the world opens up, and we are led into the forest.

I watch as people wander off. And I follow them.

I look to see if they’re thinking about the wife or daughter who doesn’t love them anymore. I look to see if their son survived the accident, if their parents ever got lost in their own minds and walked naked from their beds under the stars and streetlights at night. I look to see if they ever got over that time when they were just being young and drunk and stupid and not really thinking things all the way through to that morning at the Bennigan’s by the abortion clinic. I look to see if they’re happy. I look to see if they hate what they once were, or if they hate what they are now, or if they hate others for it.

I look to see if they’ve eaten today, if they’ve bathed. I look to see where they might be going next. I look to see if, when they go to sleep tonight, if it will be in a nice place next to a warm body or in a cold doorway next to a wet and whipping wind. I look to see if this is something they’re thinking about, too, or if they’re mostly just thinking about things like what color their new iPad will be. Black or white? I wonder which one will sum them up best, Tom.

I don’t often get close enough to actually learn the answers to any of these things (and maybe that’s the thing that others see when they look at me). But I think this whole humanity thing works a lot better when we at least keep them in mind. We’re all in this together, Tom. We can’t let each other fall asleep. You can’t do that here.

Sincerely,
Brian


There are a few things in there I'd now like to edit or delete. But then it wouldn't be the thing I wrote in 2012 anymore. And my inclination to keep it what it was is stronger than my inclination to change it. So, untouched by future me, that's roughly where my head was at about six months before coming to Thailand the first time. And I think it's fair to say that it was in a similar but escalating place while I was here, and in the years after I'd left, and right up until I came back here in 2017.

I'd been living in Cambodia for almost a year. And I don't now recall the order of operations. But I know that Lampang had started to be on my mind more and more, and I know that I found myself on Google Maps one day looking at the coffee shop where I used to sit and write on weekend mornings, and I know that this ultimately led me to book a weeklong trip back here. And I know that, after only two or three days, I'd decided to stay.

So that's what I did. I've now lived here for about as long as I've lived anywhere but for the town where I grew up, and it's a concept I still find hard to grasp. Staying. Not leaving. Not feeling like I need to break free and run away.

I used to dream of not having a home, of traveling and living out of hotels for the remainder of my time here. And that still sounds kind of nice to me, to be honest. And it's still an idea I keep in a box in the back of my brain just in case, to be real honest. But life's plot sometimes changes in ways that we don't see coming. And sometimes that change means staying put. Not running off again.

In some ways, I think I just got older and tired of starting over. But it's not insignificant that there are people, places, and things in Lampang that I love. And I am absolutely certain that I'd have opened up that box and drifted off somewhere else by now had it not been for the love that was pointed back at me.


Suphatsara "Natty" Bunnag Leli. My total and complete opposite. The brightest-burning thing I know. The missing piece.

We got together in September 2017. And when we did, we were both, in our own ways, starting from a deficit. We had not even a shared language between us. And the first six to 12 months were hard. In fact, they were very hard. But they weren't only that. They were a coming-to-life, a burst of warmth in the cold, a cool breeze in the summer heat. They were a crackling and muscular knot of joy and confusion and discovery and frustration and growth and suffering and exuberance. There was a lot that we had to unravel. And the only way to do it was one thread at a time. There was no textbook or storybook. But we held on, even though we had almost every reason not to, and we got through it. And somewhere along the way we fell in love. Not right away. And not at the same time. But it did happen. And when it did, we leaned into it, and we emerged as something more complete, something fuller, something closer to whole.

A little over two years after we met, we got married. Ahead of the wedding, Natty asked me to sing a karaoke song as part of our opening ceremony. I, in turn, asked her if she was forgetting that her soon-to-be husband can play three or four chords pretty passably on guitar and sometimes even sing nearly in key. To which she said something like, "Okay."

So I had to choose a song. And I soon realized that most of the "love songs" I had in my brain were really about loves lost, decisions regretted, love's pangs endured. They're sad songs. And I already had a sizable collection of what I already knew to be sad songs that I liked. So finding a not sad love song, I quickly learned, was going to be harder than I'd thought. But I eventually narrowed it down to Tom Waits' "Picture in a Frame."

To me, the song encapsulates a certain richness of spirit: the basic joy and simplicity of feeling love for someone who feels it back. It doesn't say that love is simple. It just says that there is a foundational simplicity present in it. And some might discover that early and easily. And some might have always just known it. But for others, it's a knowledge that can seem practically unreachable, and it can take half a life or so to work it out, even if it's been right there under your nose the whole time.

The song is on Waits' album Mule Variations, which is an album that I first heard while going through a breakup and a kind of rebirth when I was in my mid-twenties. At that time, "Picture in a Frame" was a kind of light in the distance. Something entirely separate from me, but out there somewhere, emotive and admirable, even if only as a kind of subconscious hope for a later day, and even if that hope was really just a pleasant idea to sit with, rather than the real deal.

But it was another song on the album, "House Where Nobody Lives"—about a house that once held hopes and dreams and combined lives, but is now just "abandoned and cold," a house where nobody lives—that really drew me in. I was newly living alone in a house at that time, and had only just begun, after years of indulging in the more extreme aspects of youth, to notice and acquire a taste for life's subtler things. I found it in the music I listened to then, the movies I watched, the walks I took, the snow I saw fall from the window of the train I took to work, the gloomy looks on people's faces, the matching gloomy feeling I carried in myself, you name it. And I found a lot of it in the whole Mule Variations album, but it was especially potent in that one song, "Picture in a Frame"'s near opposite.


🎵 “House Where Nobody Lives” 🎵


"House Where Nobody Lives" was an ending, a light receding. Whereas "Picture in a Frame" was a beginning, a light approaching. And for the decade or so that followed my recognition of that light, I guess I enjoyed the idea of finding its source so much that I couldn't bring myself to actually move toward it, to actually pursue the real thing. And it was only upon coming back to Lampang that I found the courage, and gave into my thought-induced exhaustion enough, to simply let go. To give up my resistance to real life, the kind that forms only between real individuals, the life lived beyond the realm of mere ideas carried around on aimless solo endeavors. A few weeks later, I found myself in a coffee shop with Natty, pulling on that first thread.


There have been plenty of obstacles and challenges and reasons for us both to walk away. But beneath all of that, there has been an elemental, atomic, irreducible love and joy. And that little glowing ember, that is "Picture in a Frame."

The title kind of says it all. And the lyrics don't say much more. And they shouldn't. Because more would be too much. The song is a small but living organism swaying in the wind. Its imperfections are refreshing and palpable. And if it tried to be something bigger or further-reaching than it is, then it would just get lost in the mess of all the rest. Its small and fleeting form is makes it what it is. Raw love. A 4x6 snapshot of it, framed forever in three verses and a bridge.

And very importantly in relation to our wedding, it's a song of emergence. The lyrics begin with the sun coming up. Waits sings: "The sun come up, it was blue and gold." It's not just any sun. It's a specific sun. An imperfect, grammatically incorrect sun. A sun given to us by one of America's best storytellers and most delightful oddities. A blue and gold sun. A new sun. A new dawn. A new beginning. There to be experienced by those not walking away.


On March 14, 2020, only two weeks after the first Covid death was reported in the US, my parents, two of their friends, and both of my brothers were here with Natty and her family and me in Lampang. They'd flown across the planet for our wedding. And because Covid was still such a new and rapidly advancing menace at the time, they all eventually had to leave early. But first they were here. They chose to be. And had the wedding been a week or two later, they wouldn't have had that choice.

When they got to town, we ate together at Aroy One Baht. Natty, me, and both of our families. We went there twice, actually. They had to put tables together for us. It was a far cry from my earlier days of eating there, when a table for two had one chair too many, and the other was occupied by the lonely guy addicted to craving the companionship that he couldn't bear in real life. And present at our feasts, among many other things, were multiple orders of the yellow curry tofu, and big plastic bowls of white rice.

It's now, somehow, almost two years later. We've made it all the way to Omicron, and Natty and I are living in a house we had built in the village where she used to live with her parents, the one I used to pass on my bike. The house is neither abandoned nor cold. And things are a whole lot easier than they used to be.

And this song, "Picture in a Frame," is no longer only an idea or an aspiration. For me, it’s the tale of an idea not ruined by its realization, of a craving better satisfied than craved, better befriended than worshipped. They're not all that way. But this one was.

The song is also a testament to life’s basics and their significance. It’s easy to get lost in the aforementioned mess of all the rest. I've gotten lost in much of it over the years. And I still do sometimes. Maybe even often. Maybe even just the other day. But beneath all of the mess, right under our noses, there is a light, there is an ember. It's in us, and it's in those we love. And it is love. And it's our job to not neglect it, to keep it burning inside of us, to keep emitting it the best we can, and to remain open to its returned warmth. It's not our only job. We have others. And one of them is to figure out what those other jobs are. But this one's at our center. And if we don't do it, then that will be at our center. That crucial thing that we didn't do. That light that we lost to the mess of all the rest.

That's what I think, anyway. And I didn't learn it from the song. But the song—masterful, sleek as a deer, a winner—holds it all together.


That's my story. Here's my rendition of the song that shelters it. You can also check out the original version from Waits' Mule Variations and Eddie Vedder's cover of it in the videos below. And below those, you'll find both recorded and live versions of Waits' "House Where Nobody Lives." And because I'm sending this episode out on December 31, you'll also find Waits' "New Year's Eve" at the bottom of everything. Thanks for listening to A Story and a Song.


🎵 “Picture in a Frame” 🎵


“Picture in a Frame” by Tom Waits


“Picture in a Frame” by Eddie Vedder


”House Where Nobody Lives” by Tom Waits


”House Where Nobody Lives” by Tom Waits


”New Year’s Eve” by Tom Waits