On September 5th of this year, two days before I was scheduled to hop on a train from Seattle to New York, I received an unexpected email containing a long-awaited song.
Before I listened to it, a set of thoughts and memories snapped abruptly into place.
Nearly three years prior, becca darling passed away. She was 27.
I turned 27 this year.
For those of you who don’t know, becca darling (née Rebecca Rosenthal) was—among other wonderful things—a librarian, a poet, and a curator of music. I primarily knew her as the latter through her bee charmer blog. She lived near Boston. (I live near Seattle.)
I’ve been asked who becca was to me. The short answer is that we were pen pals with a shared passion for music and libraries, but that doesn’t do the connection justice. Her blog was just as meaningful to me as a beloved book by a favorite author. Through it, I felt more connected to her than many of the friends I’ve made more traditionally offline, and have found sanctuary there during some of my roughest years.
Being library-minded, I like to imagine the bee charmer blog as a digital bibliothèque, and each post as a finely-crafted shelf display. They contain not only music, but also videos, images, and words carefully selected to enhance the listening experience. People commonly feel connected to and mourn the passing of famous people whom they’ve never met but admire all the same. becca was certainly famous to me, and I admired her greatly.
She was born in Massachusetts, and I was born in Arizona. We grew up with very different cultural reference points throughout our lives – and yet, in 2008 our paths intersected through the music blog she had started a few months before. I stumbled across it almost accidentally while researching Natalie Lebrecht. And when I saw that she had also posted songs by both Diane Cluck and Julie Doiron, I knew I’d found a magical place.
Not long after, she put out a call for web hosting suggestions. As it happened, I had a bunch of unused storage space. A friendly email exchange and digital handshake later, she began storing her curated blog’s songs on the shelves of my server, and I began helping her maintain the collection.
We lived our separate, busy lives on opposite coasts, but emailed one another from time to time. She made me this mix, and I made her this mix. We talked about wanting to swap baked goods in the mail, but figured they wouldn’t weather the cross-country journey too well. We realized that in addition to some shared musical loves, we also shared a passion for libraries. She was studying to become a librarian, and I was trying to get in another end of the same system.
I always figured that one of us would eventually make a trip close enough to the other to meet at a cafe or, better yet, a library. Sadly, that day never came.
becca passed away in her sleep on October 23rd, 2012. Our last exchange had been short, but gleeful: we were both working in the library system – living the dream.
The night before, she’d posted this photo captioned “la fille sur le pont“:
I find it extremely difficult to explain how this loss felt to me. There was shock and grief, but also a particular form of disbelief rooted in the fact that her digital presence, the only presence I had ever really encountered, still lingered. I knew that she was gone, and that she couldn’t answer me, but she still seemed to exist in all of the forms familiar to me, frozen in time (or simply away from her computer). I can only imagine how it felt for those who knew her offline, and I wish I would’ve had the chance to know her better beyond this screen. But I’m eternally grateful for the extent to which I was able to connect with her.
And shortly after her passing, I remembered something.
A year before, I’d supported Diane Cluck’s Song-of-the-Week project at a level which allowed me to request a one-minute song on any topic. I had spent many months mulling over a gridlock of possibilities, completely torn and indecisive. Now it was so clear. Of course the song should be about becca. Seeing Diane on becca’s blog had sealed me to it in the beginning more than anything else.
So I described the nature of becca and I’s connection to Diane. I wanted a song which captured the sense of losing a friend who I’d never met, but to whom I felt a kinship through music and the library system. I knew Diane had a lot on her plate between the SOTW project, her new album, and touring, so I told her to take her time – whenever the song was ready to be heard would be the right time.
Meanwhile, I had also become the sole caretaker of the bee charmer treasury — which had now become both a memorial space for those mourning her loss while also continuing to draw new visitors. Furthermore, many older posts had decayed over the years, so I decided to spend a few months restoring the collection to properly archive this piece of becca’s legacy.
At the same time, a wonderful memorial fund was proposed to support aspiring archivists and librarians studying at Smith College. This year, the fund supported its first recipients – and I made a journey to Massachusetts.
I had originally only intended to go as far as New York, spending a few days there visiting friends before catching a flight to Iceland. But when I received an email with the subject “Song for Becca” two days before my departure from Seattle, I decided to extend my trip a bit further east. I would bring the song with me, along with some of the bee charmer archive, on my first trip to the East Coast.
Once I was in New York, my plan was to make a day trip to Massachusetts. I would visit the Newton Free Library where becca worked, and I’d play the song for her.
I arrived in Newton, MA on a sunny Saturday, listening to some of becca’s playlists along the way. And as I was walking to the library from the rail station, looking at a map, I noticed that it shares a fence with a cemetery.
Up until that moment, I had no idea where she might’ve been buried. In fact, I hadn’t even considered that her grave might be somewhere within walking distance. But an online search confirmed that she was indeed buried next to her library, and for the first time in my life I bought a bouquet of flowers. The gesture had never felt meaningful to me until this moment, and I found an arrangement which reminded me of her blog’s banner.
Upon reaching the cemetery, which was much larger than I expected, I discovered that the office was closed, and web results made no mention of exactly where she was buried. I called her library and was able to get a hold of someone who knew her, but they weren’t sure where her grave was either. Another obituary search yielded similar results. I wandered for over an hour fruitlessly, and left discouraged. Flowers in hand and song in mind, I continued toward the neighboring library, where becca worked, unsure of where I should present them.
But as I crossed the boundary between the cemetery and the library, I noticed a clearing beneath the trees behind the library. A few benches sat facing the library, and one in particular caught my eye. It was slightly hidden and sat closest to the cemetery.
There, I presented the flowers and sat to work on another piece of my tribute. I cut out two bookmark-sized strips of paper from a sketchbook, wrote the lyrics to the song on one of them, and walked around to the front of the library.
I put on my headphones and entered listening to a song for becca.
(In a different timeline, this is when I would have met her for the first time.)
Diane had sent this photo along with it:
Upstairs, I found a window overlooking the clearing and the bench. I also found a book on a nearby shelf which she and I both loved, and which seemed oddly appropriate. I left the bookmark inside, took one final look around, and left as closing announcements were made. An Uber driver took this photo before rushing me to the station to catch the last bus back to New York.
A few weeks later, while working at my home library, I placed a matching bookmark in our copy of the same text. Though I wish I would have been able to make the trip years ago, I felt deeply relieved to have finally established a physical context between our two worlds.
I’ve since made becca a new mix inspired by my trip to visit her.
I’d like to give a special thanks to Diane Cluck for playing such a crucial role in both ends of this story, and to everyone who came here to read it. This is the first time I’ve shared a story like this publicly. In fact, it’s the first full journal entry I’ve written in perhaps over a decade.
I’d also like to thank Ursell Anning, whose blog plays a similar role in my life to becca’s and who I must credit for two of the songs on this mix.
& finally, becca for remaining a constant inspiration.