I have heard Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” dozens of times, but until recently I never actually listened to it.
On Sunday, I watched the wonderful and moving film, CODA, where it plays a central role. Ruby, the sole hearing member of her deaf family, chooses it as her audition song for admission into the Berklee School of Music.
The desire to go to college is not shared by her family, who don’t appreciate their daughter’s love of music and fear the effects her leaving would have on the family’s fishing business. There are two sides now and neither seems capable of understanding the other.
The song is a lamentation of this shifting nature of perspective. It rings with hope and aches of disillusionment.
It begins with the simple reflection on clouds, one surreptitiously inspired when Mitchell was on a plane and read a passage referencing clouds in a Saul Bellow book – compelling her to look out her window and down at the clouds beneath her. The verses that follow show shifting perspectives on love and life.
Ultimately, it is a song of reconciling the two by accepting the uncertainty and confusion. The last chorus begins “I’ve looked at life from both sides now,’ and ends with, “I really don’t know life at all.”
Today, it pains us to look at both sides of many things, so we don’t. The resulting confusion and anger intensifies. You could fill in the blank, “I really don’t know ___ at all” with so many words representing things we value most. My country. My rights. My place. My friends. My family.
No song or movie can be a panacea for what ails and divides us, but it can provide a glimmer of hope and perhaps some sense of direction.
In CODA, the sides do come together. It is not easy. The path is filled with fear, confusion, fights, shouting, and tears. But eventually, they find a way to communicate. In their own way, they listen.
If you haven’t watched the movie, I encourage you to do so. If for no other reason that it can be a temporary salve.
If instead, you just want three minutes to watch an act of reconciliation, watch Ruby’s audition scene. Or better yet, listen.