You Know How I Feel

Just listen to this.

You probably have already. Somebody covered it on some TV talent show and it went kerflooey everywhere. I think you'll agree that it's pretty damn wonderful.

I was painting my daughter's room just now while listening to it and that thing in my chest went twang and I welled up a bit and I started thinking about why it does that to me, other than Ms. Simone's turpentine-syrup voice. There's something raging in the scaffolding of that song, and I think it's this: She's singing about how happy she is, but she's doing it in a minor key, not the most obvious choice for the subject.

Her voice casts a solitary declaration out into the dusk. Then comes the BUH BUHBUH BUHBUH artillery of the horns. She follows along but doubles down against their descent, her voice rising up with a threadbare and gritty shade draped over it. The contrast between what she's singing and how she's singing it exposes the raw nerve of that joy, reveals it to be the act of defiance that it is.

It's just goddamn hard to be whole.

Now, I've got nearly every advantage in the world. I was raised middle class by the world's best parents, was labeled "gifted" at the age of three, got two college educations, am able-bodied, look faintly nosferat-ish but not unattractive, and I have no major mental illnesses or behavioral disorders. I have spent my life splashing in an endless puddle of love and opportunity. So if it's this hard for me sometimes, I cannot imagine how it must have been for her, a mid-century African-American woman who came up from poverty and got slapped around by schizophrenia.

"Talent is a burden, not a joy," she once told a crowd. "I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you." But she was us. She was us magnified. I wish she had known that.

Out of that loneliness comes the loudest line: "Freedom is mine, and I know how I feel." The words and notes demand to be belted, but she makes them a threat. Freedom, motherfucker, do you speak it.

We sometimes dismiss optimists as naïve, but I'm calling bullshit on that. If my own well-stocked larder is any proof, pessimism is cheap. Optimism, like joy, starts with a hard choice.

Optimism is belief in the possibility of joy. Joy needs freedom. Freedom means not being owned. It means casting off bonds and ballast. It means choosing defiance. Optimists have sand.

It is hard to be whole. It is an impossible chore, and it is the nature of our predicament that, if we are to have any hope at all, we must choose it.

Sleep in peace when day is done. That's what I mean.