The Art of Memory: Or my life as a mixed tape

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Positively Speaking
Specifically as it relates to having metastatic breast cancer, thinking positive may work as a curative for some. I’m not a reliable posit of positivity. I can’t hug the philosophy that a congenial attitude somehow will create a better physical environment to heal myself of cancer. I feel great some days, like shit others. And I’m not going to get better by not releasing those emotions. In fact, I believe illness can get worse by not addressing our negative feelings. Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying take out your anger on others. What I am saying is we’re complex people. Individuals with unique personalities that are created through a combination of nature and nurture, both don’t stop when we leave the nest to go feather our own.

Human beings go through a litany of good and not so good experiences throughout their lives. Some have depression and anxiety and some do not. Some are just very unusually eternally happy people. I can’t buy into that one. Everyone cries. Everyone mourns. Everyone’s been through breakups, job losses, failures. Lost friendships. Rifts with family members. Deaths and births. Disappointments and ecstatic moments of absolute joy. And even disease like cancer. Life changing emotional events that effect us for better or worse. We are married to our lives loving and living with the decisions and the luck that brought us all to where we are right now.

For me positivity stems from a belief that we can somehow control the future. Perhaps that works for some people but not for me. I rely on the memory of the past and what I’ve been given by way of the gifts of experiences with people I care about to buoy me in stormier times. The future cannot change as it has not yet not transpired. Thinking positively about something you really want may get you closer with a passion to what your dreaming of – for instance a trip to a place you’ve always dreamed. And after you’ve gone, you’re left with your memories. That becomes our past.

But I think it’s Proust who said hope is the belief that we can change the past. Truthfully, I’d not want to change the past. And I think hope comes in the moment we live in right now. Hope shifts as I like to say. It shifts with the current moment we find ourselves in, and those who wish to take my hope can scatter like rats from my ship with its slow leak. I live with hope and always will – it’s not necessarily becoming Polly Positive. (I apologize to anyone named Polly reading this; its not personal.)

Yes, I’m quite aware my boat will fill with water and sink someday. But for now I’m afloat. Hope floats us above the dark sea of the unknown, rises and falls with the tides, but never disappears. Even when my boat finally sinks, and I find my body adrift detached from my spirit, I can hope that my soul will join those whom I’ve lost over the course of my life. I hope to join the others in whatever form we take on and I can still hope for safe passage.

I think this bit of wisdom comes from a collaborative group of people, living and dead, who meet in my mind each day. Rumi, Michael O’Donahue, Mary Oliver, other poets, authors, playwrights, comedians, photographers, musicians, my grandparents and parents, and friends. Either alive or dead, each is still with me in some way. Yet those that couldn’t stay when they heard I was terminally ill remain in my past, in my memories. I do not want people who cannot help row the boat with me even though the end is inevitable. Hey, that’s terminal cancer for ya.

All the people with whom I’ve met either through their works or whom I’ve known personally, talk to me in my internal dialogues derived through memories. I may be crazy, but I’m good with that. A little insanity never really hurt anyone – note I said a little.

Here’s some proof of how this works, by lacing threads of both wisdom and folly through the gray winding roads of my brain. Over the span of closing in on 56 years, music plays a huge part in grounding me and delighting me. Music influences my thinking, through my ears racing over the hearing nerves and flooding me with a mood of sorts.

Zen and the Art of the Mixed Tape

A cassette tape

Music connects me to my past like nothing else. It brings me joy to hear things that I’m intrigued by and introduced to by friends new and old. My new friend Mila Knight introduced me to Miss Sharon Jones and the song Retreat. It was written for her by one of the members of the band she’s been with for years while she was going through treatment for bile duct and pancreatic cancer. Retreat embedded itself into my mind and became a part of my current life moment’s sound track.

And I’ve always had personal soundtracks aka playlists to the more sane population. Beginning in the ancient times of the cassette tape, I’d sit with a dual cassette player stopping and pausing tapes of albums which became cds which became digital in the span of less than 20 years. I’d sit for hours on end, stopping and pausing the recording side of the tape deck. I’d then make copies of the tape and give it to a group of friends who would do the same.

If you’re too young to recall cassette tapes don’t worry. They were a physical manifestation of a playlist on YouTube or on iTunes and sharing the link. Only it was way more time intensive and you really had to know your music collection inside and out. I was relieved when the CD came out and it was easier to put a CD and a cassette in the player and continue going through my huge collection of CDs to create a personalized music collection for someone with whom I wanted to share my soundtrack.

The Gift of Music as Memory

How we made those mixed tapes…the boom box

Receiving tapes introduced me to all kinds of music by friends, my husbands, and my father especially. He introduced me to so much music as a kid, to jazz and to rock primarily. One artist and recording come vividly to me now and always. Dad made me a copy of Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert probably about 35 years ago.

My friend in France loves it, too. He and I bonded outside of work together over that particular recording. In fact, we listened to it at his rebuilt home in the south of France near Provence in a place near Dieulefit called Bourdeaux.

The memories of my father and of my dear friend, Jens, become part of listening to this beautiful solo piano concert. Life and art appreciate over time and endure beyond the lives we had together into a place of happiness. Although my father is gone, he’s still here with me with this music, among other albums of course, but never can listen to this without being joined by his memory.

The gift of music created connections to the people in my life who I cared about most. Some songs became inextricable from the friends who gave me a mixed tape. One of my closest friends in my teens and 20’s had a mixed tape that was infamous amongst those of us lucky enough to get a copy from him. I can recall most of the songs on that tape. I lost my copy when moving from south Florida to Gainesville, Florida where I went to college. On a visit home he readily had one waiting for me and into my cassette player in my car it went.

The five and a half hour drive door to door was filled with Joy Division, Love Will Tear Us Apart, the Psychedelic Furs, Love My Way, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cities in Dust, and on and on. But now when I listen to any of these songs I’m taken back to a happy part of my life, and music influenced everything – breakups, studying, and as I am still fond of, taking long baths and singing in the hot soapy water. In 1991 I admittedly over-listened to Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got with its hit song, Nothing Compares 2 U. It drove one of my roommates insane since I’d take long baths before dates. She didn’t date much and I’d hear a lot of door slamming in the house we shared with my good friend Raul who laughed it off.

I made tapes for guys I was dating who thought, wow what a cool chick. Yeah, right, I was just a geek hiding in a black t-shirt, Doc Martins boots, and jeans. The outfit was, at that time, and all I could afford. But we wear it well when we can and we did, right? Maybe I’m crazy, but I still do the same thing, making playlists for Craig my husband, who’s also a very talented and accomplished guitar player and musician.

He’s always had an amazing collection of music as did my ex-husband. They both added extensive amounts of joy to my musical catalogue and expanded my taste – extending it to another plane of existence, and I thank them both. It’s a gift that cannot be repaid in words but only in that they’re part of who I am through music and through memory.

For my internal dialogue there’s many experiences and travels. All things of the past influence the hope I have for the future.

I know my writing can be somewhat circuitous but that’s exactly how my life feels with MBC. In a single 24 hour periodmy mind and body go through a years worth of states. Up, down, unwell, physically strong, hopeful, sad, grateful, lonely, and an entire range of emotions that can happen all in one day. Just like music. There’s a song for every one of those moods. An artist who felt something close to what I am currently feeling. Or something I made my own. Once an artist releases their works to the public they can never own the interpretations of the viewer, the listener, or the experiences.

Sorry, where is she going with all this?

It’s like our interactions with people: we cannot control their memory. We can only control our own and either forget or repress the hurt and pain if we can and if we aren’t feeling good about it. I’ve been known to extract the better parts of my life from some pretty difficult stuff to make it more palatable for the good of my own sanity. Maybe this contributed in some way in not being able to fully heal the wounds that can lead to physical illness. And I’ve suffered from inflammatory and immunocompromised diseases my entire adult life.

Change is the Only Constant

Like the death of the cassette and the boom boxes and decks on which we played them, all good things must come to an end. “Time may change me, but I can’t trace time,” as David Bowie sang in the song Changes.

Everything changes. Freedom to travel, destructed finances, living with high pain levels, the ability to work. I’m certainly not the same person in many ways but at the core of who I am, I’ll always be. If anything cancer forced me to assess how I approach people and the skills I developed over many years of a career now long gone. I bring to bear the entirety of my life to this very moment. Each day I find myself thinking about others and less about climbing some imaginary ladder to reach the apex of my current situation. That would simply entail physical and emotional wellness, and not clawing at the next level of my career path.

What clarity can I see ahead of me, walking a path built on staying alive and as healthy as possible long as possible? The haziness on the horizon and winding, hilly road provides little visibility of what’s to come. The key to lifting a dense fog layer that obscures my path equates to controlling what I can and defocusing from what I cannot.

And with that I leave you changed for having shared in my memories, and may you face your changes with grace and hope.

And, as one of my favorite spiritual guides Michael Lerner, closes out all of his talks: Peace. Peace. Peace.

I welcome your comments!

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