Words and Music

When I was thirteen years old, I became obsessed with words. It was when I decided I wanted to be a writer, after reading SE Hinton’s The Outsiders (which I’m sure I’ll post about here at some point). I read tons of books from the local library – all the Hintons, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, Paul Zindel – and wrote in a journal multiple times a day, though admittedly it was mostly about which member of Duran Duran was the cutest. (I still have the journals. So cringe-worthy.) But the point was I was writing. I was expressing myself. I was exploring what it means to use words in new and exciting ways, to communicate how I was feeling with pen and paper (because I am old and grew up prior to the ubiquity of personal computers and the advent of smartphones). 

This age of discovery coincided with the other great love of my young life: music. Thanks to my family, an appreciation for all genres and styles had been instilled in me practically since birth. My older sister’s obsession with the Beatles rubbed off on me simply by being around her. My two older brothers filled in the hard rock and heavy metal. And my dad, a sort of music polymath with a record collection in the tens of thousands, schooled me on everything else, from classical to classic rock ‘n’ roll to big band to opera. He’d even listen to the modern stuff from time to time. 

Being a teenage girl, of course my own tastes trended toward pop music. I’d grown up listening to Top 40 radio stations like WPLJ and Z100 out of New York. My record collection was made up of all the obligatory pop icons, from Duran Duran to Cyndi Lauper to The Go-Go’s to Madonna and as many 12” remixes of one-hit wonders as I could find in the local record shop. 

In my later teen years, I transitioned to more “alternative” music and tuned in to the Wham!_-_Make_It_Big_(North_American_album_artwork)legendary WLIR out of Long Island; my record collection became a CD collection populated by REM, Erasure, Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, and Morrissey and the Smiths. (Though, keeping true to my roots, my first CD purchase was Wham!’s Make It Big.) 

Regardless, no matter what I was listening to, it always came down to one thing for me: the lyrics. A good beat is nice, but for me nothing was as important as what the singer was saying to me, as the words he or she was using to express whatever the song was about. Okay, “Like a Virgin” didn’t hold much weight with me; I’m not sure I even understood what it meant when it came out. Pop music did still appeal to me just because it was catchy and the people performing it were so darn good looking. But more and more, I sought out those songs with lyrics that made me feel something, even if I couldn’t exactly describe what that feeling was. Because isn’t that the beauty of music? When done right, it can evoke emotions we sometimes don’t even have names for. 

And, of course, I wrote about it. I wrote down the lyrics of entire songs on loose-leaf notebook paper and taped them up on the wall next to my bed so I could gaze at them while I listened and refer to them for inspiration for my own writing; aside from the journals, I was a nascent teenage novelist, though everything I wrote was pretty much an Outsiders knock-off. I transcribed snippets of lyrics into my journal, sometimes doing what amounted to close readings, teasing out possible interpretations, the more complex the better. (My treatise on the Police’s “King of Pain” comes to mind. Just like Sting, it took itself a little too seriously.) 

The older I get, the more I appreciate a good lyric, one that sticks in my head the way the jungle yell of “Tarzan Boy” used to when I was thirteen years old. (And now it’s stuck again, probably for you too. You’re welcome.) Once I find one, I will listen to that song to the point of complete overkill, putting it on endless repeat, waiting each time for that moment when the lyric comes through and my emotions surge: 

Thom Yorke of Radiohead singing, “I can’t help but feeling…I could blow through the ceiling…if I just turn and run” in “Fake Plastic Trees.” 

Green Day’s “21 Guns”: “Lay down your arms, give up the fight.” 

Glen Phillips—well, I could fill a book with his lyrics, but I’ll go with “all that you a1786098417_16love will be taken someday, by the angel of death or the servants of change” from “Grief and Praise.” 

David Bowie in “Ashes to Ashes”: “I never done good things, I never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue.” 

I can even wring meaning out of my beloved pop music: 

“I have no secrets from you, I have nothing left to hide”–George Michael, “Something to Save” 

Duran Duran’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”, aka my life anthem: “Always trying to control me, who do you think you are?” 

I could go on and on and on. 

Of course these words probably mean nothing to anyone but me—another genius perk of music, that we can all interpret it and appreciate it in whatever way we want. It’s individual; it’s personal. The most meaningful line to me might be the tritest to you and vice versa. And that’s okay. I will respect your assertions about whatever artist speaks to you personally if you can deal with the fact that I sometimes find boy bands deceptively profound.

Don’t go to sleep!

I arrived in India yesterday and in between napping and trying to figure out what day it is, I’ve been reading Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King. It’s my book club book this month and is especially great to read right now because the plot revolves around a sleeping sickness that only affects women. In the book I am reading about women desperately trying to stay awake just as I am desperately trying to stay awake. It’s trippy and I think making the book better for me. More on this once I’ve finished it.


We’ve been writing about commonplace books –these old fashioned collections of quotes from books and readings– and working on our own versions for a few months now. When we started, a little bit of digital sleuthing quickly showed that most people break their CPBs down by category. I considered this for a few days, and even tried to come up with a short list of categories for my collection, but it seemed an impossible task. It’s hard to think about organization when you have nothing but blank pages in front of you. Now that we’re getting to the end of the year, however, I can look back and see some categories starting to emerge.

2017 has been a difficult year. My husband received a big and terrible diagnosis early in January and one of my ways of coping has been to just write this year off –I’ve said at least a dozen times something along the lines of “2017 isn’t a good year for me for ______. Let’s talk next year.” It applied to everything from socializing to taking on big projects to traveling to spending money. Although it sounds kind of pessimistic, I actually found it quite freeing — it was a little confirmation to myself that yes, this year would suck, but with any luck things wouldn’t suck forever. As long as you see an end to a difficult time, it’s much easier to get through it.

And I think because of this state of mind instead of using my reading to escape I’ve dug deep and read little that wasn’t about K’s illness or about how others have dealt with a shitty turn of events.

The big question that has been running through my head all year is “how do we comfort the people we love?” and the truth is that I’ve yet to come across any great answers. But I have started to build up a pretty sizeable fountain of other people’s wisdom when it comes to dealing with hard shit. I have lots of thoughts on this and will probably post about it again, but for now I thought I’d just share a few of the quotes from this year’s reading that have resonated the most.

“The secret of life is not about knowing what to say or do. It’s not about doing love or loss right. Life cannot be handled. The secret is to simply show up. It’s about witnessing it all, even the pain, and letting it touch you and make you not harder, but more tender. Showing up, feeling it all — this is my new kind of prayer. I call it praying attention, and it’s how, for me, everything turns holy.” Glennon Doyle, “The Secret of Life Is Simply Showing Up”, O Magazine July 2017

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” (found on a comment on a Humans of New York Facebook post 7/25/17)

I am reminded of an image…that living with a terminal disease is like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss. But that living without disease is also like walking on a tightrope over an insanely scary abyss, only with some fog or cloud cover obscuring the depths a bit more — sometimes the wind blowing it off a little, sometimes a nice dense cover.” Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying

“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”  Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

“Every love story is a potential grief story.” Kyo Maclear, Birds, Art, Life

These are only from things I’ve read in the last ten months. I find myself wanting to go back and reread things I read long ago, things I read before I was keeping track of quotations in my commonplace book. I want to re-read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, the best book on grief I think I’ve ever read, about the terrible year that Didion lost both her husband and her only daughter. I want to go back and re-read Late Fragments by Kate Gross, which I listened to on a solo road trip through the desert a few years ago. It was wonderful, if wonderful is an appropriate word for the memoir of a very young woman with a horrible cancer that kills her soon after she finished writing the book. I want to go back and re-read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Lifeby Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a book that I absolutely adored when I read it more than a decade ago. Rosenthal died from ovarian cancer earlier this year, just ten days after the NYT published a heart-wrenching dating profile she wrote for her soon-to-be widowed husband. I want to revisit the wisdom in Will Schwalbe’s The End-of-Your-Life Book Club and Abigail Thomas’ Three Dog Life.

I see now that this is not a new category for me. It’s just become more important to me this year. So, what should I call this category? Illness? Grief? How to live with death in your rear-view mirror? Oh. I guess that’s just called Life.