GravyLand by Joe Mills

Warning: This column, which is about gratitude, runs the risk of sounding insufferable, or being like the Facebook posts of people who flaunt their vacation photographs and their seemingly perfect lives. Much of the time, too much of the time, I concentrate on what’s annoying, upsetting, sad or melancholy-inducing, and I’m constantly struggling with my character flaws — as my son once said, “Everyone is working on something” – but every once in a while I do get a glimpse of the larger picture.

There are certain songs that I never tiring of hearing. These include, “Amazing Grace,” “Take Me to the River” (any version), and The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles.” I’ve come to recognize that “Pachelbel’s Canon” may be another one. My wife has been learning this, so I’ve been hearing it played over and over.

Maybe I shouldn’t like it. Maybe it’s a classical music cliché. But I do. Just like I like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and I like the Impressionists and Renoir and Rodin and Monet. Probably all this shows my middle-brow mind. I don’t care. One of the pleasures of aging is to worry less about being cool or having the right taste.

Each night, after the kids have gone to bed, I practice piano and then I cede the bench to my wife, saying, “It’s all yours, Mamma Jamma.” As she plays, I sit on the couch, drink wine, and read, waiting for her to finish and join me, so that we can talk about our days.

When I write out the moment like that, it sounds nice, in a clichéd domestic bourgeois way. And … it is. In fact, recently I realized, in some ways, this is a life I fantasized about. Even though I was never going to get married or own a house or have kids, I did imagine music and wine and aspirations and people to share it with.

The wine is cheap, and the couch has springs popping through it. The children typically don’t stay in bed, coming downstairs to continue our most recent argument. The news I’m reading is usually bad. The rooms have piles of rubble everywhere – sports equipment, bags, electronics, dishes, books – so that just looking around the house stresses me. And yet… and yet . . . in rare moments of clarity, I realize that I’m happy.

Benjamin Franklin once remarked that our happiness depends “more in the small conveniences of pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life.” We may focus on vacations or trips or seeming life-changing events, but happiness sneaks up on us. Sometimes we don’t even notice because we’re so cranky about the headlines or the peeling paint on the ceiling or the seemingly endless requests of our children.

In fact, the astounding, humbling, recognition for me is how this is so much better than the life I actually imagined I would have. As my wife moves on to other songs, I find myself thinking of one by folk singer John Gorka called “Gravyland.” In it, the narrator recognizes his life has turned out better than he thought it would:


‘Cause this is not what I expected

I did not expect to feel this good

I always kept my heart protected

I crossed my fingers and I knocked on wood


All the rest is just like gravy on the table

And I’ll pour and pass as long as I am able

And I know it takes some time to understand

The rules of behavior here in gravyland


At night, when the woman I’ve known for so long and with whom I’ve shared so much plays “Pachelbel’s Canon,” I’m happy. In the Japanese movie Afterlife, people who die choose one moment from their life to remember and reenact before they move on to whatever is next. Maybe it wouldn’t be this time of the evening for me, but it would be in the running for consideration.

Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.


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