I probably could have found justifications for not being happy if I had wanted to. Parents who were divorced when I was young. Some pretty messy heartbreaks. Some of those insolvable family tensions.
But to me happiness was always a given. Those things were just bumps in the road of a pretty great life.
It’s only relatively recently that mentality has taken more convincing. Somewhere along the line, those things I thought I always would have never came. Those things I took for granted went away. But most disconcertingly, the faith I had securely renewed began taking a beating. It’s like someone began pushing back my fingers one by one from the grip I had on it.
And so my soul slid into this melancholy. I feel like I have been fighting off the black tar of self pity. Sometimes I let it linger before shaking it. Sometimes I reel back from it, but it still crouches in a corner of my mind. It brings a numbing lethargy.
Still, there are these moments of reprieve.
I am sitting beside a fire in the mountains of a far off place. The flames lap at the cold air. A friend stands at a make-shift table nearby, pouring me a glass of wine. We swing between goofy and thoughtful. In this moment, I am happy, I think.
Later, I lay in a tent with the doughy material of my sleeping bag pulled in around my face. Our words float up around us as we lay there, shrinking from the bite of the cold. This is nice, I think.
In the days after, I hold to the handlebars of my bike, letting it glide on the ups and downs and sways of a powdery trail. The movement feels exhilarating, refreshing.
Tonight, I am sitting in a wooden pew, letting the mellow sounds of blues wash over me. I tilt my head back on my seat and watch as the singer’s hands weave up the stem of his guitar. Something about his voice, his music, is like a balm to those parts of me that have felt a bit tender.
Sitting here, I don’t want to go back to the dim light of my present outlook. I want to bathe in the respite that moments like this bring. They are like bread crumbs God has doled out in the midst of a season of bare cupboards.
Some say happiness is based on events. It is joy you should seek, which doesn’t come on the tides of circumstance.
To me, they have always felt like the same thing. Because I knew how to be happy about the good things that often come side-by-side with the bad. I hope this deviation from my norm is a momentary detour back to a road I’ve paved.
In the meantime, I relish these reprieves.
We were driving in his station wagon he called Betsy. The radio produced a tinny and scratchy sound, but I could still hear, and feel, the words. You got me wrapped around your finger. Do you have to let it linger … He did. Have me wrapped around his finger. For five years I was coiled around his whim. It was an immature love, but it was a love all the same. I later put that song on a CD for his birthday, and he picked me up and whirled me around for it. The Cranberries serenaded us on the way to a Montana ski resort, where we would ride up a T-bar together. These blissful moments of coupledom were fleeting and usually dissolved into disagreement in a few days after things got hard. But we both loved that song. “I didn’t used to like music,” he said on that ride to the mountain. And I tried to comprehend how that could be true for anyone, ever. Music, for me, was a means of processing emotion. Without it, you couldn’t ever get to the other side.
I heard Frou Frou’s Let Go through car speakers before I ever heard it on the movie that made it famous. I rode the rise and fall of the strings with the volume twisted far past reasonable. There was something about it that stirred something within me. We sat in his WRX in Boston and listened to it over and over, letting the bass rumble our seats as we leaned into the shiny woven fabric. He was the one who introduced it to me. This was when our relationship was good. Stable. Normal. I went back to that song over and over, long after he was gone, when melancholy hung over me, wrenching and pulling. Somehow the abandoned tempo and unbridled dynamics where my homemade recipe for a salve. Because there’s beauty in the breakdown.
“Why did you have to pick sad songs?” was the text I got after he left me at the Sacramento airport. I knew exactly which song he was listening to. Matt Costa’s Cold December was one that had cycled through my playlist over and over in the days before my departure to Berlin. I put it first in line on the mix I made him for the ride home after my pre-dawn drop off. That song contained my final words as I departed. I was to be gone only two months, but both of us knew it was the end for us. Our separation was a knife that cut jagged lines. I’ve been waiting, pacing the halls, ever since you left here … It’s going to be a cold December. “You should see the sunrise. Wish you were here,” were the last words he sent me before he disappeared into the music.
It dawns on me that all my defining songs seem to have men and cars in common. And ironically, all those defining moments were the beginning of an ending.
I woke up to a trail of ants coursing from the ceiling into a sink full of unwashed dishes.
This is when I pay for the past weekend, I thought.
I never was able to have fun at low speeds. It is all or nothing. From zero to 60. I pack it in in strings of events I shouldn’t have time for. Now-a-days, it is a healthy kind. That wasn’t always so.
The past three days were each 12 hours straight of sunshine, live music, tens of thousands of people, heat, serving sandwiches and dancing. My heels are cracked and black. My lungs are full of dust. I’m sunburned. I’m drained. A headache from dehydration pools at my temples. Sometimes fun is exhausting.
It’s nearly 1 p.m. and I’m still in my pajamas. I feel as though the past three days, as ideal as they were at the time, have sucked the energy from me. I’m suddenly looking forward to resuming the normal patterns of eat, work, eat, gym, eat, sleep.
While I was away, my home sat by neglected. I’m still not unpacked from my trip to Denver the previous weekend. My room is a regalia of clean and dirty laundry, draped over baskets and drying racks and in piles on the floor. I’m dreading having to sort that out. My kitchen table and its matching chairs have become a dumping ground for unopened mail and an unpacked backpack and stray clothing and a pile of shoes. I didn’t pay my rent. A vase of dead flowers sits on my fireplace. My floor needs sweeping. My plants need watering. I’m out of milk, toilet paper and coffee. Of the three, coffee is the one I miss the most.
A long list of responsibilities and obligations keep surfacing in my mind, one at a time.
And then there is that pile of dishes. The one that beckoned the ants from the outside in. I beat them back with a can of Raid, only to find them in the doorways of my cabinets. Ants really like cereal.
We’ve had it out before, and I thought I had won. But it only takes three days of a whirlwind music festival for them to find a jackpot in my kitchen, in the mess left over.
There is a break point in every heartbreak. One where you stop remembering the bad, and the good surfaces in little bits of salvaged memories at unexpected moments.
I am at that point. Mine is heartbreak of a different kind – not one of snuffed out romance and unrequited love, but instead caused by a loss of a piece of me. One forged by a group of people with a common love who held that piece. The kind of group you think would never cause heartbreak. I loved them each uniquely, and deeper than I knew I did until after I lost them. I was angry for awhile. I was sad for even longer. Now I just remember them as one remembers an old friend who has lost touch.
As I watch a friend blow out birthday candles, I smile when I think about how we all used to celebrate birthdays at practice by eating cake straight out of the dish, bending around each other’s forks. As I drive by In and Out, I remember how we stopped there to celebrate after a radio appearance, passing hamburgers between each other while beaming at the host’s reaction.
Sorting through old pictures, I see two of them, sitting back to back as they practiced, one with a mic to his lips, the other hugging the instrument that seems to calm his demons to his chest. And in that moment I appreciate the loyal friendship they have for each other.
There are stints of time that go by that I don’t think of them at all anymore. Sometimes I forget that my weeks were once dominated by their presence. Now other opportunities and pastimes have crowded into that space.
But it’s in the midst of live music I remember them most. It’s then my heart hurts again, like someone has reached in a pricked it with a pin. I wish they were there, appreciating it and sorting through it and digging into it like only fellow musicians can.
I try to imagine what they would think. How they would react. What we would talk about after the last chords have faded and musicians have wrapped up cables and snapped shut cases.
Like on this Friday night when a band chalk full of chops has me in an alternate state. Maybe we would sit together in balcony. Maybe one would stand, his arms crossed, and nod, uttering a guttural “Uh,” at high points of jazz riffs and blues chords. Maybe another would focus in on the drums, dissecting the rhythms into math equations.
Or like on this Tuesday night at Yoshi’s when one lone slide blues player sweeps the arm of his guitar over his audience like a wand. We sit under his spell. Maybe one would talk about how there was two much reverb in the second song and the back up singer was a bit pitchy, but in the end he would acknowledge the guitar player’s skill with appreciation. Maybe another would sit pensively listening, his chin in his hand, then repeat a lyric and ponder it with an articulate brevity beyond his years.
Then all four of them would talk about how we could and when we would and what the challenges are of playing at Yoshi’s someday too.
But on the way home, I tuck these imagined scenes away. The truth is, there is no trace of me left there. Anything I had the slightest impression on has changed and morphed into something else. Any photo I was in has been blotted out. It’s like they took a pencil eraser and scrubbed me out of that year. I compare that to my job, where my fingerprints are all over everything and will be long after I ever leave. At least there, I think, I am leaving a mark. At least there, everything I have poured in won’t splash to the ground and evaporate.
And so, when the thoughts of them resurface in the watery tides of my memory, I scoop them out for a closer look and then set them free.
Sometimes I don’t know what I feel. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to process a cacophony of thoughts of emotions. I don’t know how to sort through them. I don’t understand how joy and sorrow can be set so closely in the mix, simultaneously. I don’t understand how contentment and frustration can live together without a clash.
Lately, the only logical outpouring of those feelings comes through music. Somehow, in moments where melodies overwhelm is the only ones any of it makes sense. A piano’s keys become my interpreters. Suddenly, joy and anger and frustration and love are flowing through my fingers in colors. From the depths of my soul, I feel them rush out with warmth, so intensely I wonder if my heart’s contents are about to spill out into the open air of the room for all to see.
Or, tonight, I lay in the park, curled with my knees to my chest and my head resting on my purse, as the harmonies of violins, cellos and violas wash over me. The chill in the air has tinged my toes with cold, but I’m comfortable as I lie tucked under a blanket, breathing in the grass. The lead singer of a band is crooning along with the orchestra, his voice soothing. If feels therapeutic, refreshing. If feels like a balm on my heart, raw from days of prodding.
I remember early on fearing moments like these. Now, I don’t know how to contain them anymore in the pretty box I once stored them in. They no longer fit.
Sometimes, when words are inadequate, there is translation in music.
As usually, our conversation is a mix of ribbing and dreaming. One dusts the other’s shoulders with salt, as the victim sits oblivious, discussing one music-related topic or another.
One of us sits with his phone cupped to his ear, listening to the song we just composed at the five-hour band practice we just had. As if five hours of each other’s company at practice is not enough, here we are.
This is band culture. Late nights. Kiddy humor. And forever, music talk.
We’re constantly analyzing the components of sound, mapping out our conquest to make our big break, debating the best way to market, analyzing our last performance.
I look around at these guys I who have somewhere along the line become my brothers. Sometimes they drive me crazy. But mostly, I don’t know what I would do without them.
As usual, at the end of our late-night milkshakes and quesadillas, one tries to pay for it all, another scrapes together quarters to cover his meal, the others chip in anyway, and I, despite a fight, end up not paying anything. They then collect around the claw machines, feeding them quarters in an attempt to conquer what by reputation is an impossible game. As usual, one always wins some sort of stuffed animal — a hidden talent in addition to his musical giftings.
We pile in cars full of amps and cables and instruments and drive home to unpack, only to pack up a couple days later and do it all again.
There’s something about music that makes you fall in love — even if momentarily. Even if superficially.
There’s something intoxicating about the combination of guitar and string bass. The slap of a palm on a steel guitar. The jig of fingers on bass strings.
It’s about 9 p.m. on a Sunday — too late to be in San Francisco on a work night. Yet I am caught up in the harmonies of two male voices.
The lead singer smiles occasionally, as if amused by his own lyrics. Some might find it arrogant. I find it slightly endearing and optimistic coming from someone so boyish.
The song is repetitive and tinny, but soothing in my present state.
The danger of such love is it is visceral and fleeting. So fleeting that the subject changes with the changing of acts.
As the second artist takes his first strum and manipulates the sound with a pull of the guitar’s neck, the opener becomes but a memory. Suddenly I am entranced with the dance his fingers perform up and down the strings, the silkiness of his voice sliding along with his hand. I am traveling with him through his love stories and heart breaks. I am remembering my own.
Suddenly there is nothing outside these brick walls on a city side street. Nothing but the light on the stage and the shift of his facial expressions from intense to playful to sincere to borderline sultry under the mysterious shadow his hat casts over his eyes. I am undone.
There is something about music that makes you fall in love. Even if just for now.