I know, I know. I haven't blogged in over a month. I have no excuses, actually. I have been writing, but none of it is really blog-able (more on that later). So, here is a little somethin' from the archives!
This was an assignment I did way back in 2008 during my second semester of college for a humanities course. We were assigned to read 'Why I Ride' by Jana Richman (which is a pretty good read, by the way). It is a short story chronicling the specific reasons the author has for her hobby of motorcycling across the country. We were supposed to write a present-tense creative non-fiction essay like Richman's explaining why we do the things that make us happy and relaxed.
It took me a while to think of what I would write about, because I don't really have any 'viable' hobbies like putting tiny ships in jars or building model airplanes. I like writing, but it seemed weird to write an essay explaining why I like writing. I finally realized that my favorite way to unwind is to listen to music, so I wrote my essay about that. It all just kind of came tumbling out at once. Beware: it is kind of long. I'm long-winded. Oh, also - I got an A+.
PS - The memories from my childhood are accurate as far as I can remember them. For example, I'm not positive that the actual number of Beach Boy vinyls we owned was 2 or 3; I just guessed.
(I've also included a handy-dandy playlist of the songs I mention, so you can rock out too.)
"Creative Non-fiction Short Story: The Drive"
After any particularly long day, I love to drive around with no destination in mind and blast my music at an unreasonable volume. It is the ultimate way for me to just be still – to experience and digest everything I’ve been too busy to think about that day. Today is a treat for me – I have a four hour drive from Idaho to Utah to visit my family for the weekend. I haven’t seen them in a month and I’m looking forward to the drive almost as much as I am looking forward to seeing them.
After I fill up on gas, I impatiently head down the winding residential streets and scowl at the 25 mile per hour speed limit signs. The streets turn into hilly boulevards, and then finally – the highway. I turn up the volume just enough to make my rear-view mirror vibrate. I start unwinding to the complex rhythms and beats of Muse’s ‘Apocalypse Please,’ and I whine along with the high, plaintive vocals. It’s such a beautiful, lonely song, and the desperation of it never fails to move me.
As far back as my memory reaches, I have had a deep connection with music. It has a profound effect on me, on my sense of well-being, and on my emotional state. I think it runs in my family. My dad was in a few rock bands in his young adulthood – some of his songs even got on local radio. He always had deep commitment to his music, something that led my mom to warn me and my sisters against ever dating guys in bands. “They can sometimes have mixed-up priorities,” she would say.
He still plays his old electric blue bass, sometimes. Now that I think about it, the way he looks while he plays – bobbing his head a little to the beat, squinting his eyes to read the music with a half smile on his face – is the visual representation of how I feel when I am cruising in my car with the stereo blasting. Marriage and adulthood have mellowed out his musical tastes; he mostly listens to jazz tunes now, and a little Eric Clapton. After a long day of shopping and errands, I’ve often come home to find him on the couch, nodding his head to blaring music - which he has wired, somehow, to practically every speaker on the first floor of our home. He calls it his ‘music appreciation time.’
My mother’s tastes in music have always been a little earthier. We had a record player in my childhood home in California, and some of my earliest memories are of dancing to the folk albums she would spin on it. I believe Peter, Paul & Mary, John Denver, and The Mamas & The Papas were a few of her favorites. I can still remember how easily those songs would make my occasionally scary childhood world feel softer. The Beach Boys were also in constant rotation on that old record player; we had two or three of their vinyl albums. Their tight harmonies and upbeat tempos were the backing track to most of my childhood.
It wasn’t until my adolescence that music became my most essential coping mechanism. After arriving home from junior high, I remember the sweet escape of grabbing my walkman, loading it with a homemade mix-tape, and sliding the soft headphones over my ears. I would close my eyes, and suddenly all of the awkward social interactions, all the pains of being misunderstood, and all of the terror of being thirteen would be put in perspective. Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ wouldn’t make those nasty things disappear; the comfort that song held for me was in the knowledge that someone else understood how I felt. Listening to it, I realized that I was not the only kid to ever have a horrible teenage life. The song’s sad, rhythmic chords brought peace to some of my most desolate days. It didn’t blast away the darkness of depression with cloying sweetness; instead, it made the darkness survivable.
I'm coming over a particularly high, steep mountain pass. It’s the only part of the journey – one I’ve made a dozen times – that makes me anxious. I try not to notice the huge trucks zooming past me. Nervously, I switch my iPod to the next song. It’s Muse, again. ‘Falling Away With You’ is one of my favorites by them, and the sweet acoustic track does the trick. I am calm again.
My relationship with music deepened when I got my driver’s license at sixteen. My father considerately, albeit nervously, let me drive his little two-door Saturn around town and to school. One night during my senior year of high school, I made plans to watch a movie with Ryan, a good friend of mine. I skipped to the car and drove to his house. As I pulled into his driveway, I could sense something wasn’t right. All the lights in the house were off, and a group of people were on the front lawn. As I got out of the car and asked what was going on, I noticed that some of them were crying. Ryan’s mom had died, they explained, and he was on his way to the hospital to say his last good-byes. His friends had stayed behind, not knowing what to do, how to help, or where to go. The closest experience I had ever had with death previously was when my great-grandmother, whom I had only met once, passed away when I was seven. I had cried, but I couldn’t really grasp the finality of death back then. At sixteen years old, I could.
I numbly walked back to the car, pulled out slowly, and drove. It was starting to rain. I didn’t have any destination in mind; I drove because I didn’t know what else to do. I switched on my windshield wipers, and Avril Lavigne’s ‘I’m with you’ came on over the radio. Even though I generally hated Avril Lavigne’s music on principle, I turned it up and it lulled me into a safe, comfortable cocoon. I drove, sobbed, and prayed out loud for Ryan and his family. That song made me brave enough to go home and tell my family the news, which I knew would cement the reality of it all.
One year later, I made my very first grown up purchase: my own car. In the year after his mom died, Ryan and I dated and formed a close relationship. It was almost exactly one year later that he was in the car accident that took his life. Driving my car was my only escape during the initial period of shock, grief, and endless condolences that followed his death. I had to get away from all of the well-wishers because when they tried to tell me that he was in a better place, I wanted to punch them in the face. They didn’t understand. Sometimes, I would listen to the songs that had been special to Ryan and I while cruising along the winding roads in the hills above town for hours, sobbing. Driving and listening to songs like Rufus Wainwright's 'Hallelujah' was one of the best remedies for my raw pain.
I’m crossing the Utah state border, and the goofy ‘Welcome to Utah!’ sign with the grinning, airborne skier makes me giggle, like always. I relax a little bit; only one more hour until I get to see my mom. This is her last round of chemotherapy and it will be the most difficult one yet, but it will also be a celebration of sorts. After this treatment, her hair will start to grow back and her strength will slowly return.
If my mom had her way, she would have kept her cancer a secret until her hair started falling out – and even then, she says, she may have tried to invent some wild, non-cancer excuse for it. She is stubborn(in a good way), loving and strong; she hates to worry me and my sisters. In September of last year, her doctors found a lump in her breast that was the size of a ping-pong ball. When the news came that it was cancer, I didn’t cry. I didn’t really feel anything. I think I temporarily 'checked out' emotionally - and somewhat mentally - when my mom’s life expectancy came into question. It wasn’t until a few days later, driving around Rexburg, that I really felt the weight of it, and felt the fear - My mom could die. I drove into the Rexburg temple parking lot around sunset, turned off my engine, and turned up Green Day’s aptly titled ‘Wake me up when September ends.’ I allowed myself to have a brief, full-blown conniption fit. I cried, I screamed, I stomped... and I listened. After three plays through, I slowed my breathing to the rhythm of its simple drum beat. I turned the volume higher. I think I listened to that song eight times in a row. When it was over I felt like I could face the world, and face reality head-on. I really don’t think I would have been able to do so without the privacy to fall apart, or without the aid of that powerful song about life and loss.
I’m finally home. I run up the steps, and my impatient dog barks out a greeting before I even open the door. My mother is sitting in the front room, surrounded by my sisters. She has a fashionable cream-colored cap covering her bald head. I hug her frail body; she is thinner than she was last time I made the journey home. Dropping dress sizes is one of the nicer side effects of chemotherapy. Her eyes are still a bright, serene blue. Looking into them dissolves all of the stress and worry I’ve been harboring, and I can finally relax. I’m home.