It’s a brisk cold 46 degrees. I’m driving to the office in Jasper on a brisk, cold sunny Tuesday morning in January. On the car stereo system I hear a piano tinkling the opening notes of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” The song reminds me of a somewhat cloudy, overcast, and equally cold day about five years ago. December 26th, circa about 2009. I’m riding a train from Trenton, NJ to Grand Central Station, the very same song playing in my ears via the iPod in my pocket. I look up and see the shining silver skyscrapers of the New York skyline. For some reason, the view from this seat on the train reminds me of the TV show “I Love Lucy.” The scene ahead could be from a photo from the 1950s.
On this January morning, as I’m listening in my car, the song reminds me of the ride in to the train station, the massive crowds on the streets of midtown Manhattan, the smell of street vendors hot dogs, the sounds of traffic, people talking, some yelling, and the sight of the silver and gray behemoth buildings towering hundreds of feet over us. So many memories, all neatly stored away in the filing cabinets of the brain, retrieved seemingly, effortlessly by music. Memories of things I hadn’t thought of in four or five years, now as vivid and clear as if they’d happened yesterday. Amazing.
I’ve always been a music buff, preferring not to limit my listening appreciation and enjoyment to only one genre of music, but to acquire an appreciation for variety. Classic rock, pop, jazz, smooth jazz, classic country, the new wave music of the 1980s. I even went through a reggae phase in the early 80s. I suspect the catalyst was Eddy Grant’s 1983 song, “Electric Avenue,” and some of the music from The Police’s albums “Regatta de Blanc,” “Zenyatta Mondatta,” and “Outlandos d’ Amor.” There is quite a bit of reggae-flavored music on those earlier albums.
I can listen to those 1980s songs now and instantly be transported back to the days I sported a new wave haircut (with no bare spots around the crown), a smooth, boyish face untouched by time and gravity, and a few less pounds. Madonna’s “Borderline” is another example. When I hear the opening keyboard intro of that song, it’s as though I’ve climbed inside a time machine and set the year for 1984. Suddenly I am 21 years old, I’m in my olive green Ford Maverick, it’s Friday after midnight, I’m on Highway 78 near Walker Baptist Medical Center, driving home from a date. Events I rarely ever think about—brought to life again in realistic detail and in bright Technicolor with Dolby Surround.
Because of music.
I have had similar experiences with certain smells. Occasionally I will visit an older building or home that I haven’t been inside in several years, and the moment I am inside, fragments of memories will flood my mind, bits and pieces of conversations, thoughts, all bombarding my brain in a massive tidal wave, effortlessly, unbidden, unstoppable, triggered and released by a certain smell. It’s as though there are events in my life, certain moments that are permanently intertwined with those memories. It could be the smell of a particular wood burning in a fireplace, or floor wax, or the aroma of warm biscuits on the stove, or a dusty carpet. It might be the dank smell of dirt or old tires in someone’s garage. Maybe the scent of pine needles or a certain brand of soap in someone’s bathroom sink. Even the smell of rain on a hot summer day, wafting effortlessly on a gentle breeze like the feather at the end of “Forrest Gump,” finally reaching the olfactory center of the brain, and suddenly the walls of the Hoover Dam of Memories collapse and-
You’ve got yourself a memory flood, sir.
Unfortunately, the memories are not always pleasant. When my mother was in the hospital in 2008, a very kind nurse came into the ICU room one night, not long before Mom took her last breath, and asked if we would mind if she read Psalm 23 to her. We agreed, and she leaned over so Mom could hear her, and in a soft and compassionate voice she began; “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…” There is a hymn that was written using the words of that psalm that we occasionally sang in church services a few years ago. I have a hard time listening to that song now because it evokes such sad memories of her, slowly dying in that hospital. There are other songs that remind me of times in my life when I was enduring a loss or hardship of some kind. I lost my dad to lung cancer when I was in my early twenties, and occasionally I will hear a song or a bit of music that will jar loose a long-forgotten memory of the weeks he was having daily radiation treatments, or when he first was diagnosed, or the trips we made to the hospital in Birmingham to visit and spend time with him before he died.
Memories of so many events that I rarely ever even think of anymore, things that seem to be from a vague dream I had long ago, submerged in the subconscious, then brought to the surface in a millisecond, recalled in full-color sharp detail as if they had just happened.
How odd it seems to me that a mere three or four notes from a song recorded in a studio decades ago before CDs and iTunes and digital downloads, songs that were then actually stored on vinyl discs with grooves called 45s or LPs, or on cassette tapes, have the power to mentally send a person back in time for a few moments and allow them to briefly relive an event or a situation that happened many years ago. If only scientists could figure out a way to harness the power of old memories, and would invent a time machine that would allow us to actually travel backward in time and relive past experiences. That last fishing trip with Dad before he died, the first time you met the person who stole your heart, the day your son or daughter was born, the day you and your spouse exchanged vows, that game you scored the winning touchdown, the time your son/daughter gave their valedictorian speech. Endless possibilities. And you still have memories that haven’t even been made yet. You still have great stories to tell your children and grandchildren in the future. Do this one thing today.
Redeem the time. Savor it. Grab hold of it tight and don’t let go.
Seize the day. It’s yours to use, but it won’t last long.
Make some good memories today. 78