Written by Pablo Terraza
A popular template of a conversation that people around the world are having right now is a discussion on the premise that “nothing will be the same” after this pandemic comes to an end. While some people are debating when our quarantine chapter should come to an end, I can assure you that someone, somewhere is having a different debate about whether we should accept this “quarantine life” as our new and improved way of living. I’ve been giving some thought to this question of what will change. What do people mean when they say “nothing will be the same?”
As a non-native English speaker, I can’t help but deal with this question literally first. Will the United States continue to dominate the world? Will capitalism cease to exist? Will we all finally accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior? I think I may be beginning to sketch an answer to this original question in my mind. It is not so much that people believe that hamburgers will begin to taste differently or that our roads will no longer appear to be flat or that gravity will have a different measure of pull on our bodies. I think people mean to say that this global crisis may grant us a new perspective, and finally force us to begin to part with some of our current definitions of the objects, people and concepts in our everyday lives.
We may be surprised by how quickly our perspectives adjust to our new reality. A handshake may no longer just mean “a handshake.” Perhaps some won’t even shake hands any more. The physical presence of even someone we lightly despise may come to be sandwiched with a sense of appreciation. The anxious anticipation felt before a concert begins may even be something we look forward to. Even before this crisis, we have all been guilty of being so locked in our perspective of looking at the world through the lens of the recent past that we fail to appreciate some of the luxuries we take for granted. Think of travel (for those who can afford it) as an example. Do you think humans have always had the option to jump on a plane or boat or car and travel hundreds of thousands of miles across oceans? If you lay out our somewhat short existence as a species, it’s been a steep minority of time that we’ve been able to cut space and time in the way we move about our tiny planet. And yet it took a pandemic for us to understand it as a privilege.
For music lovers, the process of grieving often starts with music. Not because we intentionally use it as a starting point for this purpose, but like the consumption of food or oxygen, it is part of our everyday lives.
Similarly to the way this pandemic creates an opportunity to shift the ways that we look at our world, some of us have an instinctual habit of using music as a means of reflection, allowing us to shift the narratives that dominate chapters of our lives and how we say goodbye to the ghosts of our past.
Picture yourself laying in your casket at your funeral and ask yourself, "who will get to decide which songs will be played in the aftermath of my death?" What song would you choose? I hate to be a pessimist in predicting that the people you love the most will most likely choose songs that would not be in your first, second or third priority of songs. Funerals are often soundtracked by staples like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah or Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird, the Commodores’ Three Times a Lady, Frank Sinatra’s My Way, Josh Groban's You Raise Me Up or Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable. Like a drug that eases the process, the songs are played less for the person who has passed away, and more for the people grieving to easily reflect in chorus. For music lovers, the process of grieving often starts with music. Not because we intentionally use it as a starting point for this purpose, but like the consumption of food or oxygen, it is part of our everyday lives. Sooner or later we accidentally-on-purpose come across a song or a portion of a song that is in tune with our experience. In those moments, we, the listeners, experience feeling experienced. Just as you, the reader may experience feeling experienced while you read this essay. Songs can give us the emotional uplift that allows us to have more empathy towards ourselves. The words and melodies that we hear align with our memories; the awkward collage of feelings of rejection, acceptance, nostalgia, love, etc.
The act of saying goodbye can make us understandably uncomfortable. Maybe because we are in denial that literally every relationship will eventually come to an end. But maybe it also has to do with the way we’ve gone about conceptualizing our ideas of how to say “goodbye.” Just as there are emotions and moments that are difficult to face, there are also feelings that are hard to express in our primitive tongues. Us; non-academics, simpletons, bilingual speakers with a limited vocabulary, and/or basic men like myself have trouble finding the absolute ideal way to convey how we feel and go about facing our own reality. Although there are more than 50 ways to leave your lovers, it may be hard to think of even one when facing that very moment. Some may choose to say “farewell” over “goodbye.” An alternative way we can say goodbye after spending an appropriate period grieving is to rewrite the narrative. Rather than by reducing such relationships to the story of how or why we said goodbye, but also by considering what we walked away with in our minds and hearts. One of the many ways my partner revolutionized my thinking on this topic was the moment she shocked me, by telling me that she loved all of her ex-partners and planned to love them for the rest of her life through her memories. Instead of choosing to rewrite certain people out of our past, we can choose to keep- if not the person- at least aspects of those memories alive with us until our own death.
Music has the ability to both move us backward and forward in time. Like a conversation that we have with ourselves, it gives us the power to dream, teach, hurt and heal ourselves.
Our perspectives on life are forced to shift when we go through the death of a loved one or a break-up. For those of us who lose a loved one, the eventual gift that we are given through the grieving process is the formation of a new perspective of that person, which can allow us to generously (or not) reflect on the roles that those significant people played in our lives. Music is a tool that is able to provide the spaces in us that we didn’t know we had, and sometimes it allows us to reframe our past. In art, we find our moments of redemption by realizing the basic human moments that we have lived: connection, lust, love, and heartbreak. As much as we would like to lie and tell ourselves that our lives are unique and original, there is no question that whatever legitimate versions of joy or misery we have experienced have been lived millions of times before. Similarly, there is no question that the arguments I venture to share in this essay have in fact all been made before. The same applies to the stories we tell and the songs we sing, our life pathways remain the same throughout the existence of our species. Nothing is new under our moon. Certain songs we may find inseparable from the memories we lived. With the grieving process, music is the vehicle to grant memories the sort of eternal life promised in many holy books. When considering the fact that all relationships will eventually cease to exist, either by our own doing or the natural passage of time, we realize that many of our world’s most famous songs seek an impossible ideal: love that lasts forever. There is a significant amount of programming by our society about how to experience our romantic and platonic relationships. The standard narrative tells us to remember and celebrate the relationships that survived, while encouraging us to forget those that did not.
Some of the most painful memories we experience are also tied to memories of joy. The unspoken heroes of such memories are often not credited as people who pushed and allowed us to realize that there was more in ourselves and other relationships that we could find and build. Each person that we consent to allow into our lives adds to our values and comprehension of the world. Through these relationships, we gain a greater capacity to handle the world ahead of us. Each of them delighting us with a different spin on a way to look at our existence. They offer us a contrast to what we had before we met them. Some enlighten by showing us new versions of happiness, things to look forward to, things to be afraid of, and things to no longer accept in our lives. Even the process of purposely misinterpreting songs is a healing one. With streaming services, life has given us an eternal buffet of music to soundtrack our life to. Each song provides a generous amount of dots to connect back to our lives. In these unlimited libraries, Shakespeare’s popular line of “even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” can be purposed to illustrate music’s ability to heal us by reimagining the meaning of songs.
For example, a song like John Lennon’s Woman was probably written for his partner, Yoko Ono, not his mother. But fittingly, the lyrics can be reimaged as a tribute to someone’s mother. Some hospitals have reported using music to give energy and poetically heal patients back from Covid-19. The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows could be interpreted as another “can’t live without you” sort of tune, but if you listen closely, the very first line of the song references the possibility that that special person may not always be in their present life and acknowledges that “God only knows” where they would be if that person had not been in their life at some point. The Beatles’ A Little Help From My Friends was probably written about the friends they presently called friends at the time of the writing of the song. But there’s a strong argument to be made that those friends can even be the people no longer in their lives. Where would we be without the friends, lovers and family members who have gone? Although we often think of death as an ending, plenty of spiritual practices look at death as an opportunity to make way for rebirth. New perspectives can be formed, new relationships can begin, perhaps even with the same person. For those that are alive, the path for them to come back is technically always feasible. Perhaps not through an encore of the circumstances of our past but a new, alternative version that is reborn.
As we look back on our lives, we can graciously accept how "right” we were to be wrong, because our wrongs lead us to the people that we are today. We can choose to remember these “outdated” perspectives, not as a tribute to our past, but a tribute to the things we will do in the future and the people we will become.
If we are to assume that we are wiser today than we were yesteryear or yesterday or yesterdecade, our loyalty can lie in the confidence of that wisdom that we hold today. Not the melancholy we hold for the outdated judgments that we made 10, 5, or 15 years ago.
The optical illusion of our daily “new” dawn gives us the confidence to seek what the future may bring. This pandemic, similar to a break-up or death, allows us to reset our minds and reflect on what has passed, and forces us to project a new version of the future. As we readjust our rearview mirror, we can find new ways of telling the stories of the ghosts of our past. Those moments that allowed us to view our lives from a different lens. Music has the ability to both move us backward and forward in time. Like a conversation that we have with ourselves, it gives us the power to dream, teach, hurt and heal ourselves. These songs allow those ghosts to live forever in our understanding of ourselves, and ultimately, keep us from actually saying goodbye.
Pablo Terraza is an immigrant from Guatemala living in the Midwest who hopes to hold on to his accent till the day he dies. He will be happy to make you a mixtape and will likely guess two to three songs that you will love. He has a habit of tying every experience to a piece of music. He is well aware that this may all just be a simulation.