Fall on MeI grew up in a sleepy beach town outside of Atlantic City, desolate come winter. The cooler months returned the shore to the locals. We’d skim the water’s edge after dinner hour, pop stray seaweed against our ears, collect shells in our sweatshirt pockets, play elaborate games of hide-and-seek, tucking ourselves into shadows cast by sand dunes, nooks carved by drift.

I started listening to R.E.M. because of graffiti spray-painted on a beach bulwark. I was strolling the boardwalk alone. It was the late ‘80s and I was nine years old—before Out of Time or Automatic for the People climbed the charts, before Michael Stipe writhed his way through the “Losing My Religion” video with an airy white shirt and gyrating hips.

Between Newark Avenue and Wissahickon, I saw the black letters on the thick stone wall: “I ♥ R.E.M.” I was a rule-following kid; graffiti offended my good-girl sensibilities. But if someone cared enough to break the law—to leave a permanent mark—the least I could do was listen.

There’s a problem feathers iron
Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys
Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air

Back then, Stipe’s lyrics were cryptic and obscure. Murky as ocean water. Why one song would resonate and not another was alchemy as much as anything: a chord progression married with a string of words would sneak into my subconscious, settle there.

“Fall on Me,” with Stipe’s insistent wail set against a pop-y tune, was a fast and forever favorite.

Buy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky and tell the sky

This was before the Internet, before Google. When bands didn’t always include lyrics in their liner notes. You had to rely on your naked ear, on what you thought you heard. You’d argue with friends over a chorus or a garbled last line. You’d rewind and replay, straining toward the singing, toward what it was saying to you. This was the stuff of carpool debates and notes passed in class, of coming-of-age, and love songs, and broken hearts.

I was raised in a religious household where what I believed was predetermined. Yet here were words I could mold and mull over, something I could make all my own.

Don’t fall on me (what is it up in the air for?) (it’s gonna fall)
Fall on me (if it’s there for long) (it’s gonna fall)
Fall on me (it’s over, it’s over me) (it’s gonna fall)

Maybe I loved “Fall on Me” because I talked to the sky, too. Every Shavuot, I’d lie on the roof of our house and look up. Myth has it that on this holiday, which celebrates the handing down of the Old Testament to the Jewish people, the heavens open at midnight and you can send up a wish.

My siblings and I would invite friends over and we’d climb out my tiny bedroom window, one by one. We’d line up along the rough shingles and wait. I’d stare so long, stars would form that weren’t actually there. Seconds crept toward, then past, midnight—I’d will myself to see the sky split wide open—but all I ever saw was pitch, was ether. Still I made a wish.

There’s the progress we have found (when the rain)
A way to talk around the problem (when the children reign)
Building towered foresight (keep your conscience in the dark)
Isn’t anything at all (melt the statues in the park)

I spent other days, too, with my back to the roof’s slanted slope, watching airplanes overhead, marveling at strangers suspended in sky while I lay fixed, a point on a map.

Back then, I was good at staying in place.

Buy the sky and sell the sky and bleed the sky and tell the sky

Then you came along. We courted, it’s true. You called me up proper, announced yourself with first and last names. You took me out for coffee and ice cream and a walk in a nearby park cast in winter light. We strung Christmas lights in your dorm room, snuck away for day trips across the state line in your blue VW.

But you were shy and careful with your words. You took weeks to kiss me, instead rocking back and forth with your hands in your pockets, making small talk. Eventually, you’d sling one leg over your bike and head back to your side of campus.

In May, you stayed. You arched over me and then settled in. We giggled, nervous, unsure. We cried too, became one. It was enough to forget that you were forbidden. That we faced families of different faiths and lacked faith we could overcome that.

I needed to hear you say you loved me. I needed to feel the weight of you to know you were real.

Well, I could keep it above
But then it wouldn’t be sky anymore
So if I send it to you, you’ve got to promise to keep it whole

It was years later when I saw R.E.M. perform live. I was married by then to another man, it was summer, we were starting to think about a family. We sat in an outdoor theater on the Long Island shore, listening absently to the opening act, waiting for the main event. This time, that day, the skies did open. It was no ordinary rain, but sheets of water that sent the musicians running for cover, followed by claps of thunder, and then lightning that struck the metal bleachers just above us. Someone took the mic and announced it wasn’t safe to stay—we should all find shelter and wait out the storm. Maybe the concert would continue; they’d have to let us know over the radio.

Hordes of people rushed the exits, descended spiral staircases in a panicked pack, headed for their cars.

Rain seeped up the bottoms of our pant legs as we waded through the water—already a foot deep—to our Camry in the crowded parking lot. We flipped on the local radio station and sat, soaked and smiling, hopeful.

When the worst of it passed, R.E.M. took the stage and started their set with a cover of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain.” We seized on the thinned crowd, snagging balcony spots closer to the front. The showers still pummeled the theater, reverberating off the metal and tin; Stipe sang over it, above it, louder and deeper into the dark. Those who were left laughed and swayed and swelled with the warmth of strangers standing together in a summer rain.

I’m not a spiritual person. I’d lost my faith long ago, left it behind in that dorm room the night you fell into me, when we were more than two people coming together, more than love, more like proof. But Stipe singing into the downpour was as close to spiritual as I’ve come since then. Like a signal, a sign, that—for all the things that fall away, fall apart—you can stand among strangers and drown out even the darkest night.

Don’t fall on me (what is it up in the air for?) (it’s gonna fall)
Fall on me (if it’s there for long) (it’s gonna fall)
Fall on me (it’s over, it’s over me) (it’s gonna fall)

Stipe has said this is a song about oppression, about gravity. About how things fall, about those things we don’t want falling on us.

My teenage mind decided it meant Stipe focused his faith on what he could see and feel, on a physical world we could know. He talks to the sky, addresses it directly. He doesn’t beseech a higher power, not any god: Sky, don’t fall on me.

This song became my anthem: We’ll engage fully with this world we’re in, we’ll shirk intangibles and empty wishes and elsewheres. We’ll walk along the water and lift our faces to the falling rain and sing and fuck and feel alive.

Photo used under CC.