20 Years in Songs
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
I am in middle school. And I have a crush on a boy. Let’s call him John Smith.
He’s in my reading class and he sits in the back left corner of the room. I sit in the front right corner.
One day, as I enter the room, our eyes meet for a moment. We don’t smile at each other. It happens so fast, I can’t even tell if he’s just looking to see who it is or if he actually intends to look at me.
Terrified, I look away and take my seat.
I spend the rest of class wondering if he wanted to look at me. Me. Just another overweight girl who was too shy to talk to anyone besides her close friends.
When the bell rings, I look around the room and catch his eye again. We still don’t smile at each other, but he doesn’t make a face or look away.
When I hear this song on the radio as I’m doing my homework, it strikes me. Maybe I’m in love.
I don’t feel like it’s safe to write about this in my diary, so instead, I write I love John Smith over and over on each of my biceps. It’s winter, so my sweaters will cover it up, I reason. I don’t know why it makes me feel better to write this on my arms. But I feel like this is what a girl does when she falls in love. She covers herself with the one she loves–until he’s the only thing she sees in the mirror.
I listen to the radio on my very own CD/cassette player that I’ve bought with my own babysitting money. I don’t have enough money left over for CDs. So in the afternoons, I turn on the radio and press down the play, record, and pause buttons on the cassette tape deck. Then, I wait for a good song to come on.
But I miss this one.
This song is deceptive. It comes on softly, like a ballad, and at first, I don’t think it’s for me. It’s too slow and I can’t understand all of his words, but then he sings out a line that strikes me.
And now my bitter hands… shake beneath the clouds… of what was everything
All the pictures had… all been washed in black… tattooed everything.
I wonder what it’s like to have your heart broken like this. To be so in love that losing it turns your world to black.
It makes me believe that to be so in love is the best and worst that can ever happen to me. And I want it to happen to me.
But I doubt that it would ever happen to a pudgy girl like me.
“Vindicated” by Dashboard Confessionals
I’m driving in my 1990 Geo Metro with the windows down because this car doesn’t have A/C (or power steering, for that matter). My hair is pulled back to keep it from flying in front of my eyes. And this song is blaring out on the radio.
I am flawed.
But I am cleaning up so well.
I am seeing in me now the things you swore you saw yourself.
I’m in love.
I have become interesting. I am loved for my intelligence and drive. My ambition and my doubts. I have become a person with depth, even views on politics. As we talk, my thoughts and curiosities and unspoken plans come flooding out and I shock myself. I’m not putting on a face. I’m not acting a part. I’m finally articulating everything that I’ve been feeling deep in my soul.
I stop obsessing about which jeans and shirts make me look the thinnest. I start enjoying food rather than seeing it as what stands in the way of me being fully loved.
And I am loved for it.
It makes me cry. It makes me feel that I’ve been lying to myself for years. That I’ve been trying to be “the girl that guys love,” some amalgamation of images and insinuations from TV and movies and books about what makes women desirable.
I feel cheated that I’ve lost so many years playing this game.
I’m at a funeral for a friend.
Her family gathers around her casket at the burial site and a soulful older woman begins singing this song. Soon, the whole family is singing together, a hymn that I know intimately, one that I had sung hundreds of times in my Southern Baptist Church.
In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever
’til my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.
It feels like a lie.
My friend didn’t believe in Jesus. I haven’t seen her in years, but I know that much. She loved the idea of magic and truly wished that it existed in this world. She believed in the beauty of a phoenix rising from ashes. She loved symbols and ideas. But religion? Never.
She didn’t leave a note. She didn’t tell anyone what her plans were. She just did it.
With her father’s gun.
On a Friday night.
It’s not until this moment, as her body is lowered into the ground, while her family sings a song that she would have hated but is the only comfort that they can find in this day, that I begin to reconcile this stark contrast.
I begin to believe that people believe what they find comforting–or at least what validates or supports how they want to live life.
And when they can’t live out their beliefs, they destroy themselves. Or others.
And so I think that wherever she is, she is happier than she was on earth.
I’m leaving Piqua, Ohio, driving on I-75 South, leaving another funeral.
This time, it is my husband’s close friend and co-worker. A guy he had shared a desk with for the past three years.
It’s one of those deaths that makes you think, Really? Bled to death from a burst vein in his throat? The doctors couldn’t do anything about that?
It feels like a cruel, cruel mistake. Like he went through the wrong door and it slammed behind him before he could turn back. On one side of the door is him. On the other side is his wife, his two stepchildren, and his three-year-old daughter.
True, he wasn’t in great health. He chewed tobacco and subsisted on a diet of cheesy, meaty Penn Station sandwiches that he called heartstoppers. And, yes, he bragged about never touching vegetables.
But he was only 33.
On the way home, I continue listening to the Cold Mountain soundtrack that I’ve just bought. When “Idumea” comes on, I feel my heart tighten in my chest.
And I am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
Soon as from earth I go
What will become of me?
I think about my own mortality.
I want to know that I’m more than a collection of emotions and memory, fueled by food and organs, all covered in skin. I want to be more than all the decisions that I’ll spend my entire life either being proud of or rationalizing.
I want to believe that some part of me is more than brain and body. That part of me is immaterial. Immortal. Impossible to fall into ruin and decay.
I think about whether it’s possible for me to believe in no afterlife. But I’m not sure I have it in me to believe in nothingness after life. My mind cannot even fathom it. But I still think about it the rest of the day.
The thoughts circle in my mind for two more days.
Then, I decide to live.
In the following week, I decide to truly learn about how to portion my food, how to balance what I eat and how much of it to eat. I start drinking water all day every day. I buy a cardio kickboxing program on DVDs.
I drop from 175 pounds to 135 pounds in the next ten months.
My husband and I are driving on the Hana Highway that runs along the northern coast of Maui when we see dozens of surfers out on the waves. We’re riding in a Mazda5 with four of our friends: Ryan, Cate, Ben, and Sarah. It’s the second day of our week-long vacation away from cold, gray Ohio. Our plans for the days are eating and doing whatever looks interesting.
And this looks interesting.
We pull over at an overlook and pile out of the car. Ryan, Cate, and I lean against the railing, pointing at the surfers’ daring moves. They paddle like fiends toward the incoming waves. We watch them stand up on their boards, wobbling until they find their balance. The waves are high. They are tunneling rolling monsters that swallow the surfers over and over again, only for more surfers to replace them. After a wave takes a few of them down, one or two of them escape the wave and skid away safely onto calm waters before they sit back on their boards, looking for the next one. Always the next one.
Holy shit! Did you see that? Get that guy! Ben points out to Doug, who is attached to his camera, angling for the best shot.
Somewhere nearby, a car blares this song over its speakers and it’s all too perfect.
I. Am. So. Happy.
Six months later, I hear this same song at an outdoor music festival in Columbus, Ohio. Instantly, I’m back in Maui.
August 16, 2013
It’s 2:00 a.m.
I am in the Mother & Baby room after giving birth to my daughter. All the nurses and doctors have left. My husband sleeps on the couch next to my bed. My new daughter sleeps in her glass bassinet next to my bed. Aching and hurting everywhere, I lie on my side and watch her sleep. No music is playing, but from somewhere in the recesses of my memory, this song comes forth.
I had a good life, before you came.
I had my friends and my freedom. I had my name.
Still there was sorrow and emptiness, ’til you made me glad.
Oh, in this love, I found the strength, I never knew I had.
I am utterly amazed by myself. That I could grow this perfect human being. That I could survive something as painful and soul-testing as birth–and then live to talk about it.
I know that everyone calls this love, but if I’m honest with myself, I know that what I’m feeling is something completely different.
I know now what it costs to bring life into the world.
For the rest of the night, I slip in and out of consciousness as I play this song over and over again in my mind, watching her sleep.
I’m on maternity leave. My one-month-old daughter sleeps in her bassinet upstairs while I’m washing dishes downstairs. Next to the kitchen, the washer is whirring in the laundry room. Late summer sunlight peeks through the blinds. My eyes are so heavy. I find it funny that sleep is not like other things in life. When it presses down on you, you feel light. But when it leaves you, you feel heavy.
This song comes up on Pandora and I’m bobbing my head to it. Then, my hips are swaying. I drop the dishes in the dishwasher over and over again, almost mechanically, getting lost in the song. But that is my life now. Mechanical, repetitive movements chugging along at regular intervals. I close the dishwasher as the song heightens.
I turn it up. And up. And up some more.
It’s in my ears, in my mind, in my limbs, filling me up until I’m nothing but the notes of this song. I close my eyes and I’m pivoting on my toes, twirling and sliding, arms uplifted like the ballerina I never was.
I am lightness.
I’m in the living room, the dining room, I’m everywhere. I’m nowhere. I’m beyond this life that is now mine: endless repeating tasks, punctuated by a face that I’m desperately in love with. One that I’m forever tied to.
I’m my former self.
I’m a self that I have never been and probably never will be.
Until the song slows and quiets and ends. Until its heartbeat stops.
In the silence, I sit down on the ground, resting back against my heels.
Then, I cry.
October 5, 2014
I’m at Ryan and Cate’s wedding.
The air is chilly, but we’re warm in the party barn at Polen Farm in Kettering, Ohio. We have danced and danced. We have taken this reception by the arms and spun it around. Melt With You, Careless Whispers, Tongue Tied, Jackson 5’s ABC. I dance the shit out of this reception with Cate and Julie and Katy and Suzy. Even Sarah dances. Jason and David spend the hours knocking back beers and mixed drinks and wine. Ben and Chris are reminiscing. It’s a glorious four hours.
Then, this song comes on and we separate into slow-dancing couples. As I dance with my husband, I look over at my newly married friends, feeling beyond happy for them.
Josh pulls away from Suzy and tugs at Sam’s sleeve. He says something to him. Then, he’s on Ben’s sleeve. Then, Sarah’s. Soon, he’s got everyone gathered in a circle around Ryan and Cate.
And that’s how we finish the song. Dancing in a circle around these good friends, Cate’s face pressed against Ryan’s chest, trying to cover her tears.
I. Am. So. Happy.
“Awake My Soul” by Mumford and Sons
It’s 20 degrees outside and I’m running.
It has been two weeks since the miscarriage. The bleeding is over. The healing begins. I start exercising again, but the dance/cardio-kickboxing doesn’t feel right. I suddenly realize that I need to feel at least a little sexy to want to dance.
And I do not feel sexy in the slightest right now.
So I put on layers, a jacket, and gloves. If I could run in a sleeping bag, I would.
My eyes watch out for ice and snow along the sidewalk as I run past an apartment complex, the post office, and several doctors’ offices. Past the body shop and the Donato’s. My breathing hits its rhythm and the burning in my legs has numbed.
In these bodies, we will live.
In these bodies, we will die.
And where you invest your love,
You invest your life.
And that’s it.
That simple truth makes this all the more bearable.
We love. We lose. We feel pain.
And if we’re really lucky, we find our truest selves along the way.
All of it is beautiful.
Because all of it is life.