Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
I wish I could study my brain. Or have someone else do it and explain how it works. I mean in its entirety. What a complicated organ. Our own personal CEO. Zipping along and controlling what are seemingly infinite functions, many happening simultaneously. Dozens of scientists are out there, doing their best to pin down just how all the actions going on in our heads are integrated and what makes us the same as well as so very different.
I’m busy thinking about my relationship with music. Was I pre-programmed genetically to be a music receiver? Or did it come to me from my family first, and then get reinforced by my cultural environment? When I was growing up, I never played an instrument. I never took music lessons. But there was a lot of singing. My mother sang all the time. I learned the songs of her girlhood. Some were in foreign languages, others were from movies, and many came from whatever music people were dancing to in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When I went to elementary school, we sang lots of songs. I remember singing about the Erie Canal and Old Man River. Rounds singing occupied class time. Row, Row, Row Your Boat and Three Blind Mice come to mind. We started harmonizing a lot in 6th grade. Our music teacher was Miss Macaulay. She seemed ancient and was deaf in one ear. We mercilessly crept behind her and shouted as loud as we could to see if she could hear us. Another grade school teacher named Adrian C. Hartl, often played his violin to us.
At home, we sang at almost every family gathering. We’d eat our dinner and then all sing together, little kids through grandparents. We sang “You Are My Sunshine” and “Tell Me Why,” not the Beatles version. We sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” I always loved those times. Despite any problems, of which there were many, the singing connected everyone and was comforting. One of my dearest old friends told me that my family was the only one that spontaneously erupted into song during the course of a normal conversation. Music was the undercurrent of our daily life.
One of my most vivid memories was being about 5 years old and accompanying my sister to S. S. Kresge’s store which sold 45 rpm singles. She was buying Hound Dog by Elvis Presley, her music idol. Less than a decade later, I was scrambling for every Beatles release. I think all four kids in my family felt music similarly and leaned on it as a stress reducer. I’m still doing that.
By the time I was an adolescent, I had a small transistor radio. At night in bed, I held it to my ear, waiting for the top three songs voted by listeners and played at 10 p.m. on WLS in Chicago. Then I could go to sleep. I had a pen pal in Liverpool who told me about the Silver Beetles, the precursor name for the Fab Four. She called them “boss” and “gear” and I felt so sophisticated and European. I couldn’t get enough of The British Invasion, which augmented my love of rock and roll and soul music. At the same time I was listening to lots of popular music, my dad bought the family a portable stereo. I listened to vinyl which he brought home as promos from the store where he worked. What an eclectic assortment. I liked classical music by Mossourgsky and Tchaikovsky. I loved Bolero, even though my educated aunt told me I’d outgrow it down the road, when more depthful compositions would become accessible to me as I evolved into the grownup world. I listened to Mahalia Jackson and Mantovani, Dave Brubeck and Vince Guaraldi. I loved all the folk singers too. Basically there was virtually nothing I didn’t want to hear.
In high school, I sang in mixed chorus. I remember our conductor, Eugene Pence. Everyone thought he was having an affair with our accompanying pianist, Margaret Lundahl. The high school gossip mill was in high gear. When we practiced scales we had to put our fingers in our mouths and get big sounds out while not letting our teeth or lips touch them. Going to that music room was a wonderful break from the academic grind. I can’t imagine school without music.
There was lots of dancing too, at home and everywhere else. My mom said she always wanted to dance and she was very good at it. We danced with her all the time. She taught me everything I know about dancing and was a great partner. We kept up those traditions through our lives together. We waltzed, cha-cha-ed, jitter bugged and twisted. My sister and I made up line dances that we copied from American Bandstand, Hullabaloo and Shindig. I could never sit still when music was playing, no matter what type it was. I’d go to concerts and see people sitting perfectly still and I felt completely alienated from them. How could they just sit there? I always believed there was something missing in them, although I don’t know what that would be. Was it a social constraint? Embarrassment? I have no idea. All I knew is that music elevated my spirits and made me move and I never cared about what anyone thought of me.
Lately, I’ve wondered if there was any way to count how many song lyrics I know. They pour out of my head without having to think about them. They’re just stored somewhere in a mysterious spot inside our brains and when triggered by a note, out they roll. But there’s more to this for me, more than the aural sense. My one note of so many different songs stimulates a whole other kind of response that’s a complicated visual and sensate experience. It happens with lots of music on a very regular basis. I wish I knew why. I am transported to a place which I feel like I’m physically occupying. I can remember my clothes worn at the moment I heard the song, the smells and the touches that accompanied the experience and most importantly, I experience my emotions as if I’m in real time.
Of course, there are countless songs that I associate with different people. They evoke my mother and father, who sang to me when I was growing up. I see them sitting next to me at bedtime and have strong visceral sensations that are simultaneously in my head along with the sounds. There are the songs I shared with my friends, countless ones with my friend Fern who lived the Beatles with me. We changed the lyrics to many of them for fun, so they’re doubly evocative. My younger sister is in those scenes too. There are songs that transport me instantly to a moment in time, where I’m embraced, upset, romantic and wistful. So much music is connected to a specific person and I am suddenly where we were when we were listening together, and I can feel how it felt then, and smell and touch them. I am in apartments or in cars, sometimes in daylight and others times in the dark. Truly, it is often disconcerting as I seem to exist simultaneously in separate planes in time. How can that possibly be true? What’s going on in my head that makes these vivid encounters jolt me into any place, at any unsuspected moment?
Having spent so many years with Michael, our personal soundtrack is practically constant. Most of the time I’m good with that and find the associations uplifting and sustaining. I can be in the Fox Theater in St. Louis listening to the Grateful Dead or at the Quiet Knight listening to Robert Palmer at the beginning of his career. Or we are sitting at Soldier Field with Mick Jagger just feet away from us as we sat in the second row. I think we saw almost 300 concerts together. And that doesn’t begin to touch the hours we listened to music at home, album after album uniting us in memory. At the end of his life when he felt confused, I could play our special tunes which reached into him and brought him back to our space. Just like magic. We both enjoyed classical music and attended many shows at our excellent performing arts center. The first time I attended a concert there after he died I was very anxious about being emotionally overwhelmed by the feelings the music might evoke. As I sat that night and listened, I suddenly realized that I began feeling as if I was inhaling Michael, that every breath I took was filling me with his essence. This sensation has repeated itself on multiple occasions. I can only describe it as joyous, feeling him occupying part of me.
I want to know how this works. I’d like to be able to have some control over it. I know that music therapy is being used to deal with a wide assortment of medical issues from autism to Alzheimer’s. I try imagining what it would feel like to have executive function over all these random responses. Rather than being taken off guard, how could I control them and use them in a productive way? I think we’re decades away from understanding these functions. But I also believe there’s a universality to them, perhaps not as enhanced as mine seem to be, but certainly a commonly experienced phenomenon. Like comfort tastes and smells that transport you to happy memories, so the musical tracks laid down in our brains are there for a reason. I dream of figuring it out while knowing I can’t. So I sit here, inside my own private movie with a soundtrack. At least I’m never bored.