Are we there yet? Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Seventeen’, a disappearing Dublin, and me

On my way to and from work, no matter which way I travel – by busy Luas or slightly-rushed foot – I pass building sites. A new layer to Dublin is being built before my eyes, or sometimes, like with the former Camden Street dingy hostel that’s to become a Wetherspoon’s Hotel, is being assembled while hidden behind a gigantic white sheath. I expect one day I’ll walk down that street, wait ages as usual to cross the road, and the new hotel will jump out at me and shout: ‘Surprise!’

I don’t really like that Dublin is changing; that elements of it are disappearing. Or part of me doesn’t. Part of me is curious about what the new Dublin will be like, when all these buildings are no longer strange to me, when they are so boring I no longer see them. This part is glad that ‘recession’ is a word that we whisper about in reference to the past. For some of us, for now.

On Richmond St, opposite the Bretzel Bakery, there’s one site that I’m drawn to. In my mind’s eye, it’s still huge and derelict, looking as though an entire building has been plucked out of it like a rotten tooth from an anaesthetised mouth. One day a few years ago I peeked through the hoardings and got a shock when I discovered that the site wasn’t at street level – the very foundations of the former building (gone before I moved to Dublin) had been removed.

What lay beyond the hoardings was a huge hole, which filled with sludge-brown water when it rained. The site just sat there and evolved in its own way, weeds growing in the mud between the remaining iron girders. Undisturbed, with no need to care about the world around it. There was something comforting about that.

But now, that site is a modern black-walled office block, or what will soon be one. Or what I think will soon be one because I have stubbornly refused to check the planning notice to see what it is going to be. Deep down I fear it’s another hotel or student accommodation block, the type of building beloved of newly-busy developers. It is selfish to think: I am not a tourist and I am not a student so I don’t know what this building will mean to me. But I admit I do think that. I think too: Don’t we have a homelessness crisis? Don’t we have a shortage of houses? Don’t we have enough hotels? We are all blinkered by our own peculiar set of circumstances.

Around the corner from my office is another large construction site, soon to be a Lidl, or so I’ve heard. Tall cranes loom over it night and day like mechanical long-necked animals, and a large drill can be seen burrowing into the ground.

The site used to be closed off, and had absurdly long green weeds poking out of the side and top of the hoardings that surrounded it. There was a black metal door on one part that was bent in. During the day I’d see people push through the door and go into the jungle of weeds. What was that place like when they razed it? Did the people who went there leave belongings? Did they know the space would soon be gone?

I don’t like that Dublin is changing because it means time is moving on. Today, the musician Sharon Van Etten released a song called ‘Seventeen’, a song that’s about looking back at the New York she moved to as a teenager and how it compares to the New York she lives in now as an adult. It’s a different New York. And she’s a different person.

I keep listening to the song on repeat, because each time I listen I feel another gut-punch. Another line that gives me an ache in my heart.

Downtown hotspot

Halfway up this street

I used to be free

I used to be seventeen

Follow my shadow around your corner

I used to be seventeen

Now you’re just like me

I see you so uncomfortably alone

I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown

I used to feel free

Or was it just a dream?

In part of the video for the single, she stands outside locations and buildings that meant something to her. Touchstones that, though they look different now to when she first knew them, are still imbued with an element of her life’s story so far. I think of some of mine: the family homes, the Lobby Bar where I’d go to gigs, the house I lived in in Kildare, my first apartment in Dublin, Freakscene nightclub, the corner shop I worked in. I add to them more places that are now in the past tense, that only exist in my memory.

We have musicians and albums that come to us at particular points in our lives and reflect back to us the complicated ways that we feel inside. Sharon Van Etten’s albums are like that for me. Two strangers living different lives but each knowing the messiness of being human. We’re a similar age, and so it feels – like a friend said to me today – that some of us are growing up with her. So if she’s grown up, with her new child and career (she’s studying psychology) and evolved musical direction, there must be things in my life that are different too.

I wonder sometimes if I live with a sort of nostalgia for a life that I haven’t lived yet. I often think about myself in the future and what I’d think about the life I have now. Wasting time on an imagined future self.

I can hardly believe that nearly seven years ago I was listening to Sharon Van Etten’s music and seeing her in Whelan’s, and now here I am again listening to a new album of hers with nearly a decade gone past. Have I changed? And how much? That seven years feels like the blink of an eye. If you don’t notice time passing, you might wake up aged 90 and realise you have no time left. There’s a sense of that in ‘Seventeen’, of a snap of the fingers that dissolves the time between the old you and the current you.

When I go home to Cork, I accept that the city has moved on in my absence. I have given it silent permission to grow and blossom without me, to sprout interesting restaurants and spruce up streets, to embrace new people and to offer me new things each time I visit. Every new discovery and sign of change there I welcome with the joy of a smug returning native. But realising Dublin is changing means acknowledging that I have been here a decade and that time truly has passed. And it will keep on passing.

But if I think about time moving on, I know that ‘Seventeen’ is right – I am different. I have grown. We all grow but we don’t notice it as it is happening. Like a sapling turning into a tree, we don’t feel the branches stretching out, the leaves unfurling. It just happens.

Unbeknownst to you, you are growing.

And then something comes along to shake you and make you notice how you’ve changed, and things stay still for just one moment. It’s ephemeral, but it leaves an imprint. Perhaps that’s the best we can wish for.

I used to feel free

Or was it just a dream?

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One Comment Add yours

  1. CBN says:

    To say this piece resonated with me would be something of an understatement. That it would is perhaps not surprising, given we’re of similar age, move in similar circles, and in a broader sense, are both inching towards middle age (I refuse to accept we’ve reached it!) against the disorienting backdrop of this new Dublin…

    But it helped draw into focus a number of more personal experiences with which I’ve been struggling recent months. Since September, my wife and I have set about moving from the home we’ve shared for the past decade; my parents have sold the family home and moved to a more populous part of the home county; my grandmother’s health has deteriorated sharply; and, for purely practical reasons, I’ve spent more and more time in my grandparents’ old house, surrounded by the accumulated relics of their 40-year marriage.

    I’m conscious there’s nothing new in all this, nothing shocking or traumatic, over and above the usual trials of adulthood, but they’ve been powerful all the same. And, in aggregate, they’ve induced a profound sense of… something. It wouldn’t be right to call it nostalgia, I don’t think. Maybe it’s just Time — an awareness of its weight and a realisation that we’re not separated from the past by some sort of wall. Rather, we’re part of the same continuum, a clear uninterrupted line running all the way back, to worlds populated by people just like us, similarly complex, confused, stumbling towards a destiny that remains unclear.

    As a young person, you can pay lip service to that truth — like, we all know time passes; we all know we’re mortal — but maybe you can only truly feel it as you grow older and accumulate a span of history to call your own.

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