Sunday, November 4, 2012


Let Go or Be Dragged. - Zen Proverb

An isolated line of lyrics. A blast from the horn section of a favorite funk song. A chorus on repeat. More lyrics. More deconstructed music. And round and round it goes.

As inner monologues go, I have concluded this is the sum and total of filler content among the more urgent thoughts in my head. It is directly wired to the music library that has been building since I was a kid; the one that almost drove my Nana bonkers in the car one day on our way to the movies. "Is there a song you don't know the words to?!", she pleaded as I hung over the "way back" seat just behind her, singing along to the radio. It is that same voluminous catalog that allows me the rare, golden opportunity to perform a daring feat: to simultaneously wow and irritate my teenage daughter on road trips. She flips radio stations, 5-second blips at a time, and I sing along to pretty much any song that plays, regardless of the era. I smirk; she shakes her head and asks the artist or title. Whether or not I spit out the answer in time does not matter, because she has already left me in her hasty audio wake, searching for something she knows and, hopefully, I don't. 

On the cool end of it, this thought-as-sound thing helped me tremendously as a long-time music student because, like many do, I can recall individual layers of instruments separately, or hear a section in my head and work (or try) to make that happen. The flip side to this quirk, however, is that there is almost always music in my thoughts and some days it is more bothersome than others. When the mad rhythm driving Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground stays on repeat, for example. Cool for the first few dozen times until it starts drowning out the task at hand (what was I doing?), or until I get caught casually bouncing around while cleaning up a silent kitchen.

A family friend (who, to be fair, operates in the genius realm) sometimes gets lost in the math and physics in his thoughts. Computer code wallpapers an old co-worker's conscious mind and probably his dreams, too. Integers, melodies, code, whatever…it all adds up after a while. These involuntary preoccupations mix with necessary thoughts and must be tamed in order to function constructively in the world. If not - at least the way I see it - those of us with thought-noise are quite possibly closing in on spitting distance to Dustin Hoffman's tics in Rainman. As a single woman who is also closing in on FORTY (!), the last thing I need is to answer a "so what do you do?"-type question over pinot noir with the syncopated bass line competing with my thoughts. "Ba-do-do-dah do-do-dah boppah / do-do boppah" is probably not going to find me a suitable companion. 

Years ago, when I realized the music clutter had me mindlessly singing around the house almost as incessantly as a high school drama club star (for the love of Les Mis, shut up!), I started self-policing. These days, I am much less vocal and a lot more mental jukebox about things. Meaning, fragments of songs tend to pop in my head that fit into themes and situations I am dealing with. Case in point: the older I get, the more fearful of flying I have become. I can do it, but a pre-flight glass of wine helps me better understand that my overstuffed suitcase is not going to make us too heavy to stay in the sky. With or without the wine, this might pop in my head:

I think about my fear of motion, Which I never could explain
Some other fool across the ocean years ago, Must have crashed his little airplane

Other times, a spoken phrase will queue lyrics from long-forgotten tunes and I am left wondering how I can remember those - often 30 years later - but forget what I need at the supermarket. The longer I am alive, the more memory I realize has been inadvertently sent to some hidden zone. Because we cannot know what exactly is in hyper-storage and what is lost for good, I can see how we get attached to things….and stuff. We hang on to a host of inanimate objects keeping us consciously tethered to what we want to remember…of ourselves and others, alike. Or, to what we think we are supposed to remember. But just like the jumble of repetitive thoughts in our minds, it also adds up. Sentimental sludge. 

Memory management has never been more relevant than it was in the weeks leading up to our move in mid-September. For many years, my daughter had begged to leave our small town for a variety of valid reasons, and I also craved more for us. For too long, I searched my heart for the right time and place, the means, and the nonexistent assurance that we would be okay - single mother and child - in a place where we didn't know the rules. Or, the players for that matter. There is no chart or graph for making decisions like these and in between birthday parties, snow days, and barbecues with friends, time slipped away while I scratched my head. 

Oh, If I knew where it was
I would take you there
There's much more than this
Much more than this 

This summer, she reached the very end of her patience and it became clear she did not believe it would ever happen; she no longer believed me. I placed a call and - with tremendous help - set it in unstoppable motion. Despite all the giant unknowns, as the gears started turning, it finally became believable to me, too.

Maybe I'm in the black, maybe I'm on my knees
Maybe I'm in the gap between two trapezes
But my heart is beating and my pulses start
Cathedrals in my heart. 

To many outside our daily lives and our often very private struggles, the move was sudden, and the ambitious dispersal of our possessions seemed rash and radical. To some, it almost had an air of criminal flight to it and I get that. Though years in the making, it just happened that it all finally came together at the 11th hour. It probably did not help that I also had a mad look in my eye while I watched the skies change. I quickened my pace as I felt the familiar cool August dampness descend, signaling the impending return of what has come to be our dark season, our falling iron gates, our isolation from things I finally came to understand we do not have to forfeit in life. 

Throughout those few weeks, a familiar chorus played in the background, dictating the rules of this game-changing move. It helped me keep the inevitable goodbye with one dear friend business-like, after we joked it was a more suitable alternative to tears for two girly-girls with some serious grit. It also coached me as I sorted, re-sorted, and sold what I could of our belongings before giving away what remained. With every box of things I carried out of the house, it got louder.

Keep it light enough to travel
Don't let it all unravel
Keep it light enough, light enough  

The narrow-it-down criteria became: what could we live without indefinitely, what was overdue to be replaced, and what was weighing us down? From the nostalgic pile, what was non-negotiable? In the end, the keepers were: my girl, me, and the doped-up road warrior cat; one 7 x 5 x 8 U-Box of essentials to be shipped, and whatever could fit in the car. I was still purging five minutes before we left the driveway even after 2 yard sales, giveaways, and ten or so bags hauled to the curb, bursting with well-used leftovers and totally spent household crap. New life, new template. 

Prior to blastoff, forgotten contents of boxes from previous moves were revealed one-by-one in the garage, shortening the trip to the trash. Most boxes were filled with my daughter's outgrown books, toys, and miscellaneous, and the letting go process was simplified by mildew from the basement (yes!). There were also bins of things I had kept as physical reminders of who she was along the way: stories, drawings, notes, handmade gifts. It was partly for sappy me, and partly for future her. What I cannot quite put into words is the musty melancholy that got mixed in with what I saved and what I found. There is a lot of baggage that comes with stuff, you know? 

So tough to stay with this thing
'Cause if I follow through
I face what I denied

I learned the hard way that there are certain years and ages she does not want to be reminded of unless she initiates it. No surprise nostalgia allowed. There was a moment when I tried to read her a note she wrote to the Tooth Fairy and she stopped me cold. How dare I forget that underneath all of our happy, funny memories is a smear of cruel ones from people and circumstances beyond our control? While the sting wore off, I chose to savor its cuteness anyway, and laughed to myself about the night she left it under her pillow. She had gone to bed before I realized I had no cash in the house, so she awoke to $2.00 in dimes in a little pouch, collected from dresser tops and coats. Yup. I am not proud of my lack of preparation, but money is money to a kid and in my defense it is the only dime bag you can legally exchange for a tooth in New York State. Somewhere in the history of bad parenting, someone had to have gotten worse than pocket change from the Tooth Fairy. Like a warm can of beer or a new lighter.

Some things left a bigger void in her than I ever knew. I gradually discovered there is a whole Grand Canyon of inexplicable shame and 'why me?'  and without warning, a single name, place, or item can push her in….which explains why at times she shuts down my reminiscing. Whenever this happens, I peer over the edge still trying to enjoy the view and just see a river of guilt that lies at the bottom of it…my fault or not. That is a feeling that could make the best-of-the-best start running and never stop. 

Your song still needs a chorus 
I know you'll figure it out
The rising of the verses
A change in key will let you out 

No, you can't run from problems, but I believe sometimes you can beat them into submission with a change of venue. Things often lose their edge when taken out of context. That same letter to the Tooth Fairy was read back to me with a laugh a few days later when she found it my room. The recollection and the healing is on her terms and I'm okay with that. 

Other items revealed in The Great Unloading of 2012 are too private to share and almost morbidly sacred in their sweetness; good intentions of a young child in denial of drastic change. These mementos are not unlike the suddenly overturned rock: it is difficult not to stop and stare at the light-deprived, writhing facts of life that revolt us and threaten to haunt our sleep. Even years after being tucked in a box, a similar fascination kept me hoping one day they would no longer make me wince or might even not phase me at all. However, some things just never cease to be unsettling in one way or another so I return them to their dark hideout and try again another day. 

Digging in the dirt
Stay with me I need support

When "another day" showed up amid the packing, there was no looking away and yet no time to figure out how to properly discard them - an act that feels a little like desecration. Keeping them serves no purpose other than to postpone the disposal of a 7-year old's handmade wish, and yes I realize this borders on neurotic voodoo. Now I see how people end up with homes filled to the rafters with what boils down to nothing more than talismans and relics, vested with the power of outdated emotions and memory. Fear and love from another time. Irrelevant matter(s).

When you believe in things that you can't understand, then you suffer
Superstition ain't the way

Unfortunately, there is no altar and no gravesite for untidy family situations where one can leave such offerings. So shouldn't there be somewhere these things can be mailed? "To: The Center for Letting Go, c/o Santa's Workshop, North Pole". And if I am forced to listen to the soundtrack of my life anyway, maybe the heavy moment such things are released from my protective grip could at least be lightened with a cheesy 80's guitar ballad. The one playing as Maverick throws Goose's dog tags into the ocean in Top Gun comes to mind. 

All of that time spent sifting got me wondering: Why do we need tangible proof of everything that has ever happened in our lives? Even the squirrel only hoards to survive, not to remember a really nice tree it once climbed. And really, will we know what we have forgotten anyway? Thankfully, in order to fit our lives into limited space and hit the road, I mastered this philosophy: You are not throwing away the child, the grandparent, the hope, the moment, the memory, the fact, the lie, or any variation thereof. Keep a couple of things. The rest….Let It GO.

Leave all your love and your longing behind
You can't carry it with you if you want to survive
The Dog Days are Over

Someday I will unpack a few special remaining boxes as we become ready and I will say, "This is who you were. These are the things we were doing. This is what your little hands made, what you said, and what you thought was fun. No matter what, these moments exist in time. You are a perfect little dew drop underneath everything else we picked up along the way. Here is the proof."

Out of the blue somewhere in Virginia, my daughter told me that she thinks it is really cool that I save all the little things she ever gave me. Underneath some of her own thought clutter and memory noise, my little girl - a flawless melody - is still in there. With forty-two boxes and 1200 miles left behind, that is all I need to remember.

Here comes the sun….

Music Credits:


  1. Ahhhh, so thought-provoking and beautifully written. May the new surroundings bring you and your daughter many blessings. I am glad you are back, Whitney!

  2. Even though you are here now, I have missed this part of you. Thanks for another great one. I think I will print it out and save it (kidding).

  3. I am savoring every moment of reading this for the fourth time. Each "chapter"* you write brings more and more pride/humility to my heart - for so many, many reasons. Thank you for sharing your talents and your beautiful SELF.

    *one day, on the Bestseller list.