It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the heart of autumn. I’m driving farther and farther north. I just need away.
Away from what? That’s a bit of a story. And maybe someday I’ll tell that story in full.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and I’ve finished teaching for the day. Three yoga classes, and not a single student caught on to the fact that I was a burning ball of anxiety and dread. Or, if they did, they were too kind to say anything.
I’m thinking of one of my regulars telling me that she comes as much for my positive, smiling face as she does for the yoga. I’m thinking of the night before, teaching a Monday evening class, my mind so clearly not where it needed to be that I end up locking myself out of the studio with nothing but my yoga mat and cell phone in hand — and as I scramble to find someone with a key, I kept thinking to myself, “I can’t tell if this is rock bottom or if I’m just banging off one of the sides again.”
I leave behind all the major cities of New Hampshire for the great, wide wilderness. I’m desperately hoping the sight of mountaintops and foliage and open road will do something for the soul. The car’s FM radio is on and I’m desperately hoping to find a song on the radio to reassure me, to lull me, to give me something. I’m desperately hoping to find something to sing to me.
Always, always desperately hoping.
I’m desperately hoping for a moment to breathe because hot damn I don’t know if I have it in me for yet another hit. I’m exhausted and weary and anxious and none of the little gold stars I’ve been collecting in my professional life will mean anything if I can’t catch a break in my personal life.
I’m desperately hoping for a break.
I drive and I detour. I take lefts when I feel like taking lefts. I turn around to see something whenever something catches my eye. The weather is cloudy and I can’t see the sun, but — for a moment — I’m at ease.
I pull onto a familiar road — the road that brings me back to my neighborhood — a Top 40 country music station left haphazardly on my radio. For all my escapism into the realm of music, I forget the station is even on. I’m lost in my thoughts as I return, the murk of it all muffling my hearing. It takes the next song to snap me back to reality.
It takes a song that has absolutely no business being on a Top 40 Country Station to snap me back to reality.
It takes a song that I haven’t heard in nearly 20 years to snap me back to reality.
A nearly 40-year-old Canadian pop song.
My parents’ wedding song.
I’m going to get into a car accident. I’m going to throw up. I’m going to pass out.
Before Anne Murray can even say, “Dreaming. I must be dreaming…” I am hysterical. The road blurs as I attempt to get into my neighborhood, my street, my house. The tears well up from a place so immensely and frighteningly deep that I am reminded of just how many protective layers I put up just to survive the day. I think of the last time I heard that song: in the back seat of my father’s truck, the look of simple joy on my mother’s face when the song came on the easy listening radio station, the gentle peck of a kiss they gave each other in commemoration; one of those precious, fragile memories I scoop up like porcelain figurines and cradle close because without them I’ll completely harden up; a naïve little elementary school girl who — despite already having a handful of memories no 8-year-old should have — still saw her family in only the best of lights.
Now, over 20 years later, the song is the very last song I hear on a very long car ride. I stay in the garage after the song ends — a song so perfectly timed that it plays in full just as I get to my driveway. I sit there like a survivor after a natural disaster. I numbly take in what’s in front of me. I’m not even half sure it happened. It takes a moment for me to even register that an outdated pop song has just played on a country music station that plays only the latest hits. It takes a moment for the timing of it all to really sink in. And, for a moment, I am reassured. I am filled with light.
This is a sign. I know it is.
The next morning, barely past 6 a.m., I get the call from my mother.
A week after they had removed the feeding tube. Four years after he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Decades after the body had started its decline. More than a half century after the start of one of the most common social activities out there that had at some point mutated into one of the most devastating addictions.
My father has passed away.
At this point, I know it’s “Man in the Mirror” from the first two notes. Possibly even just the first.
When he — our mentor, our teacher, our friend — first recommended it, I had never heard of it before. Even though I was 15 at the time, I was still — in many ways — as naïve and deaf to the world as that 8-year-old. I knew the major Michael Jackson hits, but that was basically it.
And that’s all it was: a brief discussion about music, a simple recommendation. But he had that type of effortless leadership over those teenagers that a solid chunk of us then scrambled after school to hear this song. In a time before smartphones or fast internet — when music sharing was in its supreme infancy — we became super sleuths to find this song we had never heard before.
Because that’s just the type of person he was. He spoke and you listened — not out of submission to authority, not out of fear, but because you simply wanted to hear what he had to say.
To hear what he had to say. That’s all we wanted when, less than a year later, we found out one cold, January morning that he had lost his battle with depression.
It was a battle we had no idea was even being waged. A battle the adults were so painfully and frustratingly slow and hesitant to talk about. A battle we’d desperately retrace our steps over in order to see if there had been any sign of it the last time we all had respectively seen him. All we wanted then was to hear what he had to say. We thought of every discussion that was now nothing more than a set of memories, and we desperately wished it wasn’t the case. When we went to war with Iraq, when the Red Sox broke the curse, when life would twist and curve the way life always does, so many of us wanted to do just that: file into a room and hear his thoughts on the world around us. To listen to what he had to say one last time.
That’s when “Man in the Mirror” took on new life. That’s when every school dance had a “Man in the Mirror” moment — now as much of a staple as the Electric Slide and Stairway to Heaven — and those of us who had him as our teacher & mentor would huddle around and cry or laugh or just hug each other. That’s when listening to the song brought a well of emotions that no 16-year-old is or should be equipped to handle.
That’s when I wrote to Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to do a long-distance dedication. That’s when, a few Saturdays later, as I’m driving my mom and my brother back from some type of event, I turn on the radio at just the right time.
(The timing of all things.)
That’s when I pull into the closest neighborhood and park the car and hear Casey Kasem read my words out loud and play the very song I requested.
To this day, there is no channel-changing when “Man in the Mirror” comes on. The song is played in full, always. Bare minimum, a time for reflection — but, because I’m crazy enough to believe in the timing of all things, I pay close attention to when I hear it. What times the song comes on the radio, and when there’s an uptick of that song on the radio.
And there are upticks — across all receivable stations –sometimes. I channel surf the radio enough and spend enough time next to my car’s radio enough to notice trends across the dial. And since I’m crazy enough to believe in the timing of all things, I’m crazy enough to believe it means something. Crazy enough to notice that the upticks always seem to coincide with when I’m most at a loss. When this 29-year-old old — 13 years removed from the tragedy and already 2 years older than he’ll ever be in this lifetime — is the most desperate for reassurance that she’s on the right path, that’s she’s not just shooting blindly in the dark and praying nothing ricochets back.
Sometimes the song comes on the radio when I’m way too deep in unhealthy, unhelpful thought patterns — thinking patterns that I know are leading me down a no-good path, are going to put me in the wrong headspace, are going to do more harm than good — and the song snaps me out of my reverie. It always feels like a gentle chastising. A reminder to keep your head on straight, from a mentor who’ll never be as old as you are now.
I can think of two psychological phenomena off the bat to pragmatically explain that timing of all things, but it’s not enough to sway my faith — that what’s coming through the radio is preordained and meaningful and exactly what I’m supposed to be hearing.
We sang before we spoke. I can’t count the number of times I’ve defended the vital need for music with that statement. We communicated in tones long before complicated syllables. We sang while sitting around our fires. Before written word, we communicated and transmitted vital information by singing it to the younger generations. We sang the stories of our ancestors. It’s the same reason we’ll sing out a little diddy in order to remember a phone number. The reason singing has a long history of lifting spirits when they were truly at their lowest
Because music connects us. Because it gets under the skin and strikes cleanly at the soul in a way the monotone never could. Because there are few things as reassuring as hearing someone sing out your experience or your emotions — as if reminding us better than paintings or sculptures or even the written word that, if art can be created from such a jagged crevasse in the human condition, then the suffering is not completely for naught.
And because I’m crazy enough to believe in the timing of all things, I deliberately leave the car radio on during the countless hours I spend on the road — both for voluntarily and for work. I deliberately channel surf, throwing it out there to the universe and the powers that be, “Okay. Tell me what I need to hear.” — as if I’m two steps away from waiting on the microwave to give me the next set of directions.
There are countless phenomena — exhausting, scientific, psychological, statistical reasons — to explain away hearing the right song at the right time. That song you swear was written about you, or to reassure you, or to mock you. A song that pops up at just the right/wrong time and makes you want to go, “Oh, shut the fuck up, radio,” before checking your own insanity (and checking your own mindset that would cause such an easy derailment in the first place).
And the radio gives me exactly that. Gives me the beat to free my soul when I need it. Reminds me to be brave when I need that reminding. Calls out my bullshit when I apparently need to call myself out on my own bullshit. Reminds me that these feelings, these emotions, these experiences, are completely, 100% valid. Reminds me that there is life outside of these feelings. Reminds me that there will always be a reason to dance.
I live a bit through the radio. I’m nutso enough to believe I’m hearing what I need to hear through the radio. I am reassured through the radio. I am reminded what it is to be alive through the radio.
And sometimes the radio goes off and the deliberate playlists — the songs saved to my phone or the Cloud or wherever — come on, because sometimes I’m not waiting on the universe to tell me what I need to hear. Sometimes I’ll seek out exactly what I want to hear and drift into the cadence, the melody, the lyrics. Swim inside a world where even the most nuanced experience and complicated heartbreak can be explained in quarter beats and refrains and choruses. Find that momentary stay against the confusion. Sort out the world one note at a time.
And dance. Always, always the chance to dance.