My Life in Songs
Music has an incredible power to impact our lives and reflect our experiences.
As part of their poetry unit, one of my classes was asked to create a soundtrack of their lives, a list of music that seemed to suit the themes of their lives so far. The idea is to get students reflecting on the power of poetry or music and its role in their lives. Students presented their music to the class, sharing with others the songs that had impacted them so profoundly while reflecting on their own worldviews and the themes that defined their lives. They created CD covers for their soundtracks, a near-anachronism that hearkens back to the days when we actually interacted with our music in a physical way, perusing the liner notes for untold easter eggs and other gems about our favorite artists, sharing the art with friends.
The incredible thing about this assignment is the window it offered into each student’s world. While I sadly missed out on some of their presentations due to an unexpected week off, I did get to see quite a few, and I was taken aback at the way talking about the music they connected to seemed to open up the lines of communication between them. They shared beautiful little snippets of their lives and experiences; one student revealed the depth of his connection to his mother, another talked about the power of music to bring her through a difficult time in her life. Later on, one of my students passed me in the hallway and asked if I was going to create a soundtrack for my life, and I thought to myself, “Easy blog post? After the horrors of last week, yes, please.”
To sum up one’s life in the space of 10 songs is an incredibly daunting task (I chose 11), but I’ve done my best to put together a picture of who I am through them. So without further ado, these are the songs that have framed my life.
Songs in the Key of Life, one of the best R&B albums of all time, was released in 1976, the year I was born. This song celebrates the birth of Wonder’s daughter Aisha with lyrics like ”Isn’t she lovely / isn’t she wonderful / isn’t she precious / less than one minute old / I never thought through love we’d be / making one lovely as she,” and my parents always told me it reminded them of me, so I guess in a way it was kind of my first song. If you’ve been reading my blog at all, you probably know that my parents had an extremely tumultuous relationship, but to imagine a time when they were very young parents, happy and in love with a new baby is a beautiful image to hold on to.
“Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure / Nothing ever lasts forever / Everybody wants to rule the world.” I remember when I was growing up how Baby Boomers would reminisce over growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, and it always seemed like an amazing time to be a kid (see Stephen King’s Stand By Me), partly because it was so far removed from the 1980s in terms of technology and just the way people lived. As it turns out, the 1980s was a pretty incredible time to be a kid, too, and the very last generation before technology became integrated almost cybernetically in people’s daily lives. If the world of the 1950s and 60s seemed simpler, the world of the 80s seemed bigger, highlighted in a bright shining holographic neon glow. Listening to the radio was a constant part of our lives, and I had a little pastel boom box in my bedroom that I still dream about.
There are so many songs I could have chosen to exemplify this time in my life, but I chose this one because it is so emblematic of the way new wave seemed to seep into every aspect of mid-80s life. When I hear this song, I remember Saturday mornings curling up with my Cap’n Crunch and Pee Wee’s Playhouse in my aunt’s papasan with my cousins Michelle and Heather, the Miami Vice poster on their bedroom wall, my baby pink high top sneakers.
3. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor, “Quasi una Fantasia,” Op. 27, No. 2, 1st Movement (“Moonlight Sonata”)
We’ve always been a family where emotions run deep and a bit stormy, and for no one was that more true than my mother. She was a complicated soul, and I really believe if she had been given a better chance in life, she could have done amazing things. She left ample evidence of her gifts as a writer in bundles of long, beautiful letters she wrote to her mother and my dad, which I found tucked away in the beautiful Lane cedar chest she left me when she died.
She was a woman who kept her cards close to her chest, always afraid that someone could turn on her without warning. But every now and then, she revealed a glimpse of her beautiful vulnerabilities. Every once in a while, she would sit down at our family piano and play until my heart ached, her long, straight auburn hair nearly touching the bench behind her as she poured herself into her songs. “Moonlight Sonata” was one of her favorites, I imagine because like me and Arthur, her heart was tuned in minor keys.
Sometimes when I was very young, I sat with my back to the piano next to the pedals and felt the waves of sound pulsing through my spine into my spirit. Although I hated piano lessons and was terrible at reading music, I taught myself to play this song as a teenager, painstakingly annotating the notes and pushing myself through the pain of it, countless hours, until I mastered it, and playing it still makes me feel connected to her.
I was a freshman in high school the first time I heard this song. I was piled in the back seat of an upperclassman’s car en route to an event with our theater class with a few older students that were at that point in my life the absolutely coolest human beings I had ever met. They hung out at the legendary club Ikon, dressed in dark, funky clothing, and listened to music that broke my mind wide open to the world. I will never forget the day I first heard this song. I had never heard anything like it, and the industrial sound reached into my soul like a Pentecostal minister at revival. After that, I was always on the search for music that would challenge me–new, innovative sounds that spoke to me in the same way.
When my brother Jeff was alive, he was my best friend. He was a mellow soul, always down for a good time, chill as heck. But when he was still living at home as a teenager, he was a mess; misunderstood by my mom and probably undiagnosed but on the autism spectrum, he received the absolute worst of her abuse. This song was one of his favorites, likely because he connected with the protagonist through his own experience. Jeff used to play this album over and over again on a cassette tape I’m fairly sure he shoplifted to begin with, and to this day when I hear it, I think of him.
When I was 18 years old, my mom unexpectedly kicked me out of our house. She found out I had been loosely making plans to move out in the future and had been continuing a relationship with some family she was estranged from and had a complete meltdown. She forced my (very large) brother to physically put me outside the home, threw some of my belongings in black Hefty trash bags, and tossed them onto the driveway. I probably could have begged my way back in, which is what I think she was hoping for, but I knew her control over me would be worse than ever, and I was afraid I would never be able to leave if I did.
I spent the next year or so living with my cousins, aunt, and uncle. My cousin Heather and I took most of the same classes at TCC, and for a hot minute, Jagged Little Pill was on repeat in her black Mustang. We were 19 years old and the world stretched out before us. Every day, we’d belt out the lyrics on the way to class, and this song came to be a sort of unofficial anthem for that stage of my life.
“You just called out my name and you know wherever I am / I’ll come running to see you again.” Justin and I were friends before we ever got married, and he was a very good friend to me. At one point, he told me he was interested in dating, and I told him I was just not looking for that at that time. He was totally cool about it, no friend zone drama, and his respect for my boundaries played a pretty big role in us ending up together. Back in the early days before we ever became a couple, he used to play this song on the jukebox at Bull and Bear for me where we would hang out after our long Olive Garden shifts back in the 90s. This song was his promise to be my friend without asking anything in return.
“Celebrate we will / Cause life is short but sweet for certain” — This song is the essence of my twenties in music. The pain of my childhood was behind me, and I was creating an incredible life with my best friend. During our twenties, we saw more than 200 concerts together, dancing under the stars in stadiums and music festivals, feeling the rhythm of life pulse through our spirits and our minds. We were married in the Ozarks surrounded by green and magic and light, a crown of flowers on my head, and this is one of the songs that played on our (literal) wedding mixtape.
“Good friends we have, good friends we’ve lost along the way / In this great future, you can’t forget your past / So dry your tears I say”– Life is ebb and flow, and all that beauty and light of those early years started to come crashing down in a tsunami of loss in our early 30s. It started with our good friend and roommate Lee, then our first baby, my brother, grandparents; the losses came so quickly I couldn’t move past one to the next, and the pain crept around me and through me until I felt cemented in space. But Justin kept taking us back to our roots, dancing under the stars, and this song was one of those songs that always helped heal my soul and bring me back to myself again.
“So let us not talk falsely now / The hour is getting late” — This list wouldn’t be complete without a reference to my geek heritage, and my experience with Battlestar Galactica was nothing short of life-changing, so I am including the Bear McCreary cover of one of the best songs ever, which was written by Bob Dylan and best covered by Jimi Hendrix. Both the song and the series are ripe for literary analysis, my other great love, and Bear McCreary’s work on the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack is some of the most complex and incredible scoring I’ve ever heard, all culminating with this incredible cover.
“It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all / The opposite of love’s indifference / So keep your head up, my love.” This song is for my three youngest friends, my loves, the ones who rule my heart. It is about pushing back the stinging tears and finding the power deep inside your spirit to still laugh and dance and risk losing. It’s about perseverance, carrying through the deepest of pain, the beauty of fields of bright red flowers balanced against sorrow and loss and living in a tiny fifth-wheel trailer while we waited for the next stage of our life together, but always together. Together or not at all.