Music and Memory

Time to listen...

It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m cleaning my bathroom. I’ve selected an exceptional playlist on my phone, encouraging my feet to dance. Then I hear it. Ben Folds. It’s “Zak and Sara.” And with it a Back to the Future Delorean-like transportation of sound and fragrance for a particular place and person.

No longer am I surrounded by bathroom tiles and the potent scent of bleach. I’m in a white pickup truck. I hear a voice sitting next me, driving us someplace my memory can’t recall. It’s a voice belting lyrics while turning up the volume. A voice that knows every instrumental movement and taps their hand on my leg to the rhythm. The voice of a musician with perfect pitch. It is the voice of someone excited by the music and who shares their excitement with me. I am falling more and more in love.

But, it’s more than the voice. It’s the white pickup truck that smells like soap, citrus and sandalwood and spice. It’s the empty Skoal chew containers strewn about, adding a hint of wintergreen. It’s the constant sound of empty plastic bottles being crushed under my feet. It’s the way the voice’s eyes catch the light and seem to smile when we look at each other. It’s the way this voice seems to be singing to me and the way my skin responds to it. It’s the memory of a memory, and I welcome it as I sit on the edge of the tub and pause, forgetting about the toilet brush in my hand.

***

In 2014, I professed vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity in the Society of Jesus. As I and ten other men anticipated the beginning of this ritual, the pianist began to play the entrance hymn – “The Summons.” Tears formed at the corners of my eyes, and my heart was full of love. Memories waltzed through my mind in a seemingly choreographed awe – my first crush dancing with my first broken heart, the death of a friend in step with the birth of my goddaughter, the voice in the white pickup truck. All those moments led me to the back of that church with these companions, with whom I had made even more memories.

A couple weeks ago at Mass I heard the piano begin playing that same song. And I began to recall the faces of these friends who stood with me in the back of that church four years earlier. These past few months some of them have been experiencing rough times, but now we’re not together in the back of a church. We’re miles apart. It’s been an inviting challenge to discover how to be in relationship with people whom I deeply love, but who are nowhere near my front door.

As the congregation sang, all I could do was pray the lyrics for my friends. All I had in that moment was my deep love, my voice, and that song. So I clenched my eyes together and shout-sang, wanting my prayers to offer rest and relief. My jaw quivered from the urgent appeal to God, please, Lord, please, carry their cross, help them carry their cross.

***

Much like a movie, there’s a soundtrack to our lives, underscoring everything, helping us to remember.

When “Zak and Sara” makes its round on my playlist, I return to that pick-up truck. Nevermind the heartache that would eventually befall that relationship. Now, I can look back without hurt and regret and recognize the gift of having been in love. A song like “The Summons,” which carries a wondrous joy of commitment, becomes a prayer of love and hope for hurting friends and an acceptance of my reliance on God.  

Music almost always makes its way out of the speaker and into my heart. It becomes more than sound – it becomes a light, illuminating the hard and hopeful, the sad and surreal, the amazing and the average. Listening back, I’m reminded of who and where I was. My heart ready to see how God loves me into existence, then and now. A love that’s always been there. A love always eager to hold me and guide me forward. A love easily heard with the help of music.

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