Listening to music isn’t just about hearing melodies and parsing lyrics, but about replaying the memories a song evokes. Just as a movie’s soundtrack can vividly summon its scenes (the way “Stuck In the Middle With You” can give you the Reservoir Dogs shudders, or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” suggests that a fun thing to do after a funeral is wash dishes with the cast of The Big Chill), we retrieve little sensory blips of our lives each time we check out a song from our mental libraries.
That’s because, during the years that we’re actively accumulating new musical input, we’re storing along with those songs the people we were when we heard them. Each time I hear Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” for example, I cruise the Avenue once more with Lisa and Gitta and Sue, the windows of Lisa’s silver Camaro rolled down for the boys who are also cruising, until we all draw too near the stinky Quaker Oats plant, and roll them, swiftly, up. The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” takes me on a visit to my brother at Iowa State, where I slam-dance in his dorm room with his cute new friends. Whenever Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” plays, the air blues over with cigarette smoke and the smell of cashews heating in the Nut Hut of the bar I tended in college. Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” brings me home from grad school, where I shuffle around the house in rhinestone-encrusted sandals, singing “Diamonds on the TOPS of my shoes” until my mother suggests I take myself outside and see if there’s a neighbor I could also irritate.
As we age, however, we eventually stop listening to new music. Maybe we settle down with a partner of a different generation, and grow weary of arguing the merits of Elvis Costello over those of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Maybe we have children, and not only do we no longer switch on the radio, but we’re forbidden to sing any lyric that wasn’t first voiced by an imaginary animal. Maybe the technology shifts, and none of our REM cassettes works in the CD player of our new minivan.
By the time we return to ourselves for long enough to listen to music we’ve chosen again, we inevitably choose the music of our youth. The question, then, is why?
Well, partly because we already have it: we take all the brand new technology and use it to transfer our albums, cassettes, and even the stray CD we bought for that rare moment in the minivan when all three kids would fall asleep, to a miraculous place called an “iTunes library.” There, we discover a process called “shuffling,” which, like a manic DJ, arbitrarily arranges our old songs in fresh new ways, the Fine Young Cannibals chasing the Talking Heads until the Police show up and take them to the Queen.
But we also return to our music because we miss being the people we were when we heard it. Oh, sure, we’d like to be more current, but what a thrill it is to summon our pasts and twirl them around the room.
This phenomenon, as much as anything, explains why many of us feel a certain age in our heads that is jarringly distant from the age of our bones. For me, that age is, roughly, 27—just a little more than half the age I am right now. And while getting stuck in time is one of the ironic markers of advancing through it, there comes a point for all of us when we can simply no longer listen to the same ten songs, time after time, without longing for the lyrics, and their associations, to shift. Yes, girls just want to have fun, but what about middle-aged women who have once again torn the meniscus in their knee?
How do we get unstuck?
The answer: find some teenagers and give them the password to your iTunes account.
Yes, at first it will be unsettling to find artists you’ve never heard of, like Marina and the Diamonds or Mumford and Sons, jockeying for position with your beloved INXS, and you may be tempted to shake your fist at your computer and order Ed Sheeran and Regina Spektor, whoever the hell they are, to get off your iTunes lawn.
You could just keep hitting “skip” until the shuffle returns you to 1982, which is a fine place to live in your head, I suppose, if you’re still happy to have Ronald Reagan as your president, your term paper on Chaucer due tomorrow morning by 8am, and seven dollars left over after this month’s bills for the purchase of either beer or Ramen, but not both.
But if you do this, and if you have enough teenagers (say, for the sake of argument, that you have three), you’ll eventually find yourself skipping more music than you’re listening to (as well as marveling over the charges on your credit card). And while you are a relatively adaptable “old” and can almost determine, without adolescent help, how to make a playlist that includes only your 30 year-old songs, iTunes will change its location the very next day, and you will have to once more endure the whites of a teenager’s eyeballs when you ask her to show you where your playlist has gone.
Or you could give in, and listen.
Before you know it, you will have created brand-new memories to store with these new-to-you songs, like the beatific expression on your son’s face when you took him to see the stage adaptation of “Monkey: Journey to the West” in New York City, because now both of you really liked the animated band Gorrillaz.
Or the time you took your daughters to a pumpkin patch, even though they were way too old for that sort of thing. On the way you there, you listened to Florence and the Machine, and decided that “Dog Days are Over” would be an excellent song for one of those musical montage scenes they throw into movies to help zip you through the boring parts. Later, when the three of you found yourselves in the middle of the world’s lamest corn maze, you each started to sing the song, all at the same time, and though parents pulled their toddlers close, you were, magically and suddenly, having an excellent time.
Cage the Elephant will become your go-to band for running whenever your bum knee allows you to hit the street, and the lyrics to “In One Ear,” a song about how people don’t listen (it goes in one ear/and right out the other/people talkin’ shit but you know they never bother), resonate just as much for middle-aged mothers as they do for angry young members of bands.
Hozier’s “Like Real People Do” will be the haunting place you store your bewilderment and delight over finally finding, in mid-life, the kind of love the songs of your youth, endlessly, sought.
And while some of the songs might well take you back, as your old songs do, to the person you used to be, there’s something reassuring about returning to that place from a distance, with something approximating wisdom. Lourde, for instance, is the sort of artist I probably wouldn’t have listened to when I was her age (she’s only 18 at the time of this writing), because her music would have rebuked my desperate-to-fit-in teenaged self. But oh how valuable she is for the mother of teenaged girls now, reminding them that it’s okay to be “kinda over gettin’ told to throw [your] hands up in the air/so there.” That the concept of a “team” can be about supporting one another, instead of choosing up sides.
And then there’s Taylor Swift, or, as nobody likes to hear me call her, my girl Tay-Tay, who doesn’t so much remind me of the girl I used to be as represent the girl my inner 27 year-old would like to be and is trying to be as she becomes unstuck in time: buoyant. She’s aging quickly now, but even so, she “keep[s] cruisin’/Can’t stop, won’t stop groovin’.”
“It’s like [she’s] got this music/in [her] mind/sayin’ it’s gonna be all right.”
I woke up on my 53rd birthday a few weeks ago (no no, don’t worry–I’m not one of those sad little people who refuses a gift out of spite, just because it’s late) with a startling revelation: that I am a bad witch.
And while, as a bad witch, I can’t possibly have any idea what you’re thinking, I’ve drawn on my professional Know-It-All powers of Observation and Inference, and divined, from your muttered “Duh,” that you, on the other hand, are not at all surprised to learn this.
If so, that’s because you’re thinking about witches visually, in the Glinda sense, as in when she asks Dorothy, in what is probably the meanest moment in recently colorized cinema history, whether she is a good witch or a bad witch (even though, just seconds earlier, she had trilled her little booze-soaked laugh and assured her that only bad witches are ugly). So yes: if that is what you’re thinking, then you aren’t wrong.
Mean, but not wrong.
(And let’s just agree that this doesn’t help at all with your whole forgetting to buy me a present thing.)
But you’ve also totally missed the point: Yes, I am old and ugly, but these are not the only things that make me a bad witch.
Other signs and indications: lack of functioning crystal ball; tragic dearth of cat familiars; inability to cackle (seriously, I sound like a Muppet with a cold); and, most important: the fact that I woke up on my 53rd birthday, at all.
You see, I don’t know when it happened exactly, nor why, but at some point in my youth, I looked into my future and predicted that I would die at the age of 52. Maybe it was because I was experiencing a mid-life crisis in my 26th year, or maybe it was because 52 seemed like a completely plausible number for a reasonably elderly death, given my family history.
Also, obviously, I was a morbid twit.
More important, though, is the fact that in doing so, I was following the example my mother had set, and once again getting it wrong (see: MFA vs. MBA).
Fact: Somewhere in the 1960s, my mother, in a fit of boredom, took up the occult arts, housewife-style.
First she began reading palms, which was kind of a hoot, as well as an excellent party icebreaker. One cup of sake in and the adults, seated on cushions on the floor by our Japanese table, would stretch out their hands to my mother, beseeching her truths. “Good lord!” she’d say (because that’s the sort of thing good witches from Iowa utter). “I see at least two more children. And,” she’d say, tilting a potentially philandering hand to the light, “at least another wife.”
To be honest, I was none too pleased with my own reading, which pointed out the very clear break my lifeline made at its mid-point, squiggling foolishly toward my heart line when it was supposed to curve to my thumb and my far-off death. (Note: the Good Witch read this as an indication of how closely connected love and health would be for me; me, I was like: dying young? Got it.)
Then my mother took up handwriting analysis, poring over the swoops and curves of our jottings to prove intelligence, or sociopathy, or laziness, or (according to “Zolar,” author of Success at your Fingertips) the “fact” that illegible writing reflects a neurotic or even evasive nature (to which I say: fuck that. But never mind why).
Then she took up astrology, but the way she did it had nothing to do with the horoscopes you’d find in the Sunday paper (which, for you young people out there, was an early form of Buzzfeed). She did charts. She did graphs. She MAPPED that shit, starting with the moment that a person was born and looking up the alignments of the planets and moons and stars to find their houses (which were definitely cheaper then, though harder to search, without Zillow).
She pored through books that said things like “let us first consider sun transits to your natal sun” and contained page after page of some primitive form of Sodoku, but with squiggles. She’d fill these in with more squiggles, and then sit you down to tell you that in 1978, say, you’d experience some great personal crisis (and if anyone’s keeping track, let me just say that I’m still bitter about not making the football cheerleading squad).
And then she abruptly quit doing charts, though I wouldn’t find out why until years later. She switched to another kind of magic entirely, returning to school to get her MBA. And, because she was a good witch, as well as bewilderingly good at math, she got it.
Then, in 1983, about a week or so after my older brother was killed in a motorcycle accident, I found her in the kitchen one morning, staring into her cup of tea. I didn’t think much about it, since this staring into something for no reason, for hours, while whatever it was we were studying grew cold or dark or changed in no way at all, time passing, unmarked, across these narrow vistas of grief, was a practice we’d all suddenly taken up.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and joined her at the table, casting about the room for my own visual resting place before settling, finally, on our scorched toaster oven, which was full of a very interesting arrangement of crumbs. A few minutes passed, or maybe an hour, or maybe night had fallen, when it occurred to me that my mother might be doing something other than what I was, which was nothing.
“Are you reading it?” I asked.
She raised her vacant eyes to me. “What?”
“The tea. Are you reading the leaves?”
My mother reached into the cup and pulled out a tea bag and set it, with its withered Lipton label, on our plastic tablecloth.
“Oh,” I said. “Right. You can’t read a tea bag.”
“Anyway,” she said, her voice raspy from lack of use. “I don’t do that anymore.”
I can’t remember her exact words from there (and truth to tell, I don’t even remember the ones I’ve recounted already, though I’m pretty sure this is how it went), but she preceded to tell me why it was she had stopped all the occult stuff so abruptly, so many years before: she had looked into the future and found her own death.
Which was supposed to have taken place, according to her chart, just about a week ago, give or take or a few days.
“I thought it was mine,” she said. “But I was wrong. It was Tommy’s.”
But here’s the thing: even though she lived another twenty years or so from that day at the table, she was still right: much of my mother’s spirit fled with my brother’s, to wherever it was it had gone when it left his body the week before.
So even though I consulted no chart or graph or mystic rune when I arrived at my own death prediction half my life ago, I still broke a sweat when I realized that that was exactly what I was doing: peering into my future and seeing its end. Or seeing a future in which something catastrophic would, if not end my life, then at least strip it of reasons for wanting to live it.
As the daughter of a witch, I knew there was a savage land just south of coincidence that you could find if you used the right maps; as the daughter of a witch who’d lost her son, I knew it was a place you could manifest, whether or not it was really there.
Which is one of the reasons I have been loath to post this. For weeks now I have pasted this into my blog and then deleted it, as fearful as any other daughter of a witch of the imprecision of vision, and as appreciative as any other middling writer of the spells that irony can cast.
But after learning this weekend that a step-cousin has entered hospice at the age of 34, and that an Aunt-in-law (and friend) has died at the age of 58, what I find myself mostly taking away from the fact that I woke at 53 and discovered that once again, I had failed to follow the example my mother had set, is: relief.
Yes, I am a bad witch. I’m an even worse accountant. And while I may not ever be able to understand how it is that north can be a fixed place, when, if you turn a map upside down, it’s now clearly on the bottom, I don’t have to be a good witch to know that if I start walking, I will, eventually stop.
I am going to die. We are all going to die. Until then, waking up glad that you haven’t is a damn good way to start your day. Particularly if most of the things in life that make it worth living—your loved ones, your shelves of books, that vase of yellow flowers, your seven or eight couches, the sun, rising, like a witch, in the east—are still here.
(Except your birthday presents. Which are bound to show up, if you just wait a bit.)