While women sip their daiquiris by the pool,
and men blow smoke into the jacarandas,
the radio plays “Fly Me to the Moon…”
A child nearby, on finding a dead bee…
Some fathers offer ice cubes from their highballs,
the station plays “Volare,” and the bee
swings up to heaven on its single wing.
“Fifties Music “by Leslie Monsour, The Alarming Beauty of the Sky, 2005).
Around 6:30 a.m. this morning, I prepared to write this week’s prompt, building on themes that emerged in the writing shared by my Moores UCSD’ “Writing Through Cancer” group earlier this week. I settled myself into my usual spot, a comfortable chair at the window, looked out at the cloudless sky and wrote, “What a beautiful morning…” It was enough to send me back in time. I remembered my mother, mopping the blue linoleum tiles of the kitchen floor, singing the chorus of a song from the musical, Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Oh, what a beautiful mornin’
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Everything’s goin’ my way.
That one memory was enough to ignite an hour’s worth of writing, trying to recall the few facts of my mother’s youth that I knew: born in Oklahoma, moved to Texas, worked in the cotton fields of the family farm, embarrassed by her meager beginnings… Little by little, other details emerged, names of great-uncles, of my grandfather’s wealth lost in the depression, letters written to me by my great-uncle Charles that, no doubt, contained some of the family history that was rapidly being forgotten. Letters that burned along with my parents’ house during my first graduate year in university. I couldn’t write fast enough to capture it all.
It’s no secret that music can trigger powerful recollections. “What seems to happen,” says Dr. Peter Janata, cognitive neuroscientist at University of California, Davis, “is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movies that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye.” Janata refers to this as “musical evoked autobiographical memories.”
His study mapped the brain activity of a group of student subjects while they listened to samples from the “Top 100” music charts from their youth. The subjects signaled researchers when a musical sample triggered a specific memory, and immediately following the MRI session, filled in the details of those memories. Janata discovered that the region of the brain where we retrieve the memories of our past serves as a hub linking familiar music, memories and emotion. This same area is one of the last of the brain to atrophy, which helps to explain why music often elicits strong responses from Alzheimer’s patients.
Music has other benefits too, and a long history in medicine and healing. The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul. Ancient Egyptians and Native Americans incorporated singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals. Even the U.S. Veterans Administration incorporated music an adjunct therapy for shell-shocked soldiers after World War II. Today, music therapy is widely used in hospitals and cancer centers to promote healing and enhance the quality of patients’ lives. “The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of Awakenings wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.
Reading Sacks’ comment took me back again to a period of my life, one where music played a significant part in my emotional healing. In the years after my first husband’s drowning, I spent many nights alone, after I tucked my daughters in bed, lying on the floor next to the stereo speakers, listening to favorite songs pulled from our musical library, often times with tears streaming down my face. Two years later, after seeking the safety of a therapist’s office to navigate the complexity of my emotions in the wake of loss, I recorded a mix of the songs marking each chapter of my life: courtship, marriage, motherhood, widowhood and, ultimately, healing. It was the accompanying soundtrack to those fifteen years of my life. I made a copy and presented the tape to my therapist at our final meeting along with a chapbook of poetry written throughout the therapeutic relationship—many of the poems inspired by memories triggered by the songs I’d recorded. Music was instrumental to my healing process.
Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country
(“Music,” by Anne Porter, Living Things: Collected Poems, 2006)
Do you have songs that capture the themes of any particular period of your life? Remember, memories and emotions are linked in the same region of our brains. Music helps us recall not only the memory, but the mood—the emotions—we felt at the time. You can use it just like filmmakers use soundtracks to enhance the suspense, drama or comedic moments being portrayed on the screen. What if you recorded a soundtrack for your life? What music would you choose for different periods? What memories are triggered by different songs? What feelings?
This week, use music as your writing prompt. Take any favorite recording and listen to it. Keep your notebook open, and as random images, thoughts or feelings emerge, jot them down. Keep doing this until the music ends. Re-read what you’ve written. What stands out? Now, begin writing again, this time recalling, in as much detail as you can, the memories associated with the music. See where it takes you.
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
The time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again…
(“Memory,” from the musical, CATS, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, 1981)