I’VE TRIED MEDITATION, dosing myself with the prescription to apply it at the same time each day. And when I do, the silent, tunneling lack of thought sculpts my sharp edge into something I can use in the world, rather than something I merely use against myself. Exercise, too, razors off some degree of my resistance. But neither one has done enough recently to let me write something I want to write, and the longing for words soon became a search for a new kind of support. What to do?
I had already made myself a standing desk a year ago and had updated my computer to an even larger screen. I cleaned my office, throwing out the dead plants, and purchased and hung in my view my all-time favorite New Yorker cartoon next to print of my hands-down favorite painting.
Hmmm, I thought. Hmmm.
And then came the kind of gift that made me giggle. Lying on the floor sweating and panting during the insanely hard exercise class I take twice a week, some Donna Summer slid into the soundtrack and I was hauled off my mat and onto another sweaty floor, this one on West 54th Street, upstairs in the dark, being served by the shirtless boys in athletic shorts and tube socks in what was once Studio 54. And as I soared downstate, I stopped for a moment amid the clouds to wonder what the hell does music really do? How, for instance, did my soul’s jukebox pick that night and that venue from all the other – yes, I admit it – times I lost every single inhibition to the bidding of the great Donna Summer?
Yes, yes, I know about how what fires together wires together in the brain, and about neuroplasticity, and how memory moves, but this small association was transposing a 58-year-old woman in a third set of ab work into a 22-year-old in the thrall of life itself. And I pumped on. Thanks, Donna, but how did you do it, and if you did it, can you do it again? Specifically, can some other music do something similar, or, even more to the point, something else? And what would that music be?
I have worked in utter silence for more than 20 years finding all music too loud, too confining, too influential. Like painters who discover that wearing a green shirt they paint that day predominantly in green, I was finding words from songs dropping out of the soundtrack and into my texts. Not good.
It wasn’t always like this. When I lived in Manhattan, and music was required to drown out the sirens and the neighbors, and even the birds at dawn on those nights when I wrote all night (ah, those), I listened to a precise cocktail of music: Country during the day and William B. Williams’ Make Believe Ballroom every moment it was on the air. The country music, while discordant to my WASPy culture, taught me the simple delight of toying with language. Where else can you hear a lyric like, “She’s got a ring on her finger and time on her hands?” I never emulated those, but I did let them shake me up. And shaking up a writer is never a bad idea.
And then the music stopped. Maybe it was simply because the sirens and the shouting did not follow me upstate, and they didn’t, living as I do in a very old barn, hours above Manhattan.
But then came Donna, and while I’ve written before about the twinned memory aspect of music, this time I was singing a different tune, wondering if the music of my youth could help me write something I longed to write. Was it time to let it back in? Lovely as it was to be back at Studio 54, I don’t want merely to be 22 again. I don’t want just to be hauled off. I like it here. What I want is to write better and more, and more often. Always.
So I made a playlist, choosing 48 songs that range over 50 years of one type of music, the most recently recorded of which is Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. I already have on my devices entries such as “Gym List,” one for my classical music, and three from my daughter of her music that she thinks I should know.
Forty eight songs. As I write this, my bangs are bouncing over my eyes to the undeniable throb of the Allman Brothers. That’s right. I made a playlist. And it’s only rock and roll. And I like it.