Today, I asked my students to make a list of 5-10 songs that had meant something to them in their lives. I then asked them to choose one of those songs and to write an in-class essay on why the song had meaning. Given that I shouldn't ask my students to do something I'm not willing to do myself, I chose a song and began to write. Here goes....
Three years ago, I left Ithaca on a mad flight across the country. It's still not clear to me, 39 months later, what I was doing. The thing I remember from that time was the overwhelming urge to run, to leave--really, to flee--a life over which I felt I had lost all control. It wasn't that my life was without meaning--on the contrary, I would say there was too much meaning, too many things going on--and it was as if my brain short-circuited and the primal urge of fight or flight hijacked my brainwaves.
I had just left my marriage of 12 years, had just conquered an addiction to opiates that had enslaved me in a cycle of chronic pain and narced-out bliss, had decided to "become" a writer, and had just had my disability benefits run out. In short, my life was simultaneously chaos and re-birth, and being stuck in a tiny town in the middle of rural New York was not where I wanted to be.
On a Thursday afternoon, I announced to my soon-to-be-ex-husband and my two shell-shocked children that I was going back home to Seattle to look for a job, look for housing, and that when I got settled, I'd make a new life for my kids there.
It sounded almost rational. After all, Seattle was home, had been for my adolescence and most of my adult life, and even after eight years in Ithaca, that was definitely not home.
And so, less than 36 hours after my pronouncement, I pulled out of my former driveway in my '95 Sunfire and I set off to find myself.
For most people, finding oneself is a long, meandering journey with myriad steps along the way. Not for me, though. No sirree Bob. At the top of my list of character defects is impatience, and I wasn't wasting any time in getting where I thought I needed to go.
I was traveling on Labor Day weekend, and I did not have a cd player in my car, so I was entirely reliant on my car radio. The radio became my compulsive obsession. I have rules for the radio: no country stations and no Jesus. I was amazed at how quickly I could identify either. With Jesus stations, I'd say it was less than two seconds--there's a certain quality to the music played there that resembles Chinese water torture. I sense that hanging drop and I'm outta there. And with country stations? Well, when you're driving on I-90 and someone's speaking with a southern drawl, there's a good chance you're not listening to pop.
It was, however, one of those weekends where every Top 40 station was broadcasting some kind of theme for the weekend. And, given the fact that most radio stations are owned by a small number of media companies, it wasn't surprising to find that nearly all of them were running some form of nostalgia--it was either 70's music or 80's music. Take your pick. No wonder I was driving so bloody fast.
The first night on the road, I slept for three hours in a rest stop in Minnesota. (If you're following along on a map, I'll let you do the math in terms of miles.) The second night, exhausted, I stayed in a $26/night motel in western South Dakota. And the third day, I drove 16 straight hours and 1130 miles. I have no idea how fast I was going. My speedometer only went up to 110 mph and it was maxed out for most of Montana.
What driving this fast did mean, however, was that I crossed the Cascades and came barrelling down into Seattle sometime after 11 pm on Labor Day, 60 hours after I had left Ithaca. And here's what I remember, the place I've been trying to get to when I first started writing this down in my room full of students.
I came across Mercer Island and began the last part of the journey: driving across the floating bridge across Lake Washington. The sky was dark, of course, and I don't actually remember if it was cloudy or not. But the city, which, when I was a kid hadn't been a city at all, just an overgrown town with magnificent views of the Sound and the mountains, the city was laid out before me. It's a forest of skyscrapers now, monuments to money, but on this night, they were all lit up. I had turned the radio back on, and as soon as I had come into range, had tuned it to FM 107, KNDD, the End. As it turned out, KNDD was doing a retrospective, too: The top 100 modern rock songs of all time. And as it turned out, close to midnight crossing the bridge, the d.j. mentioned that he was going to play the number-one song.
I had left Seattle in 1993, the tail-end of grunge, a year before Kurt Cobain committed suicide, but always, anything by Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, etc., would snap me back to home. And so when I heard the opening chords--and how could this song not have been the number-one modern rock song?--I thought it was a sign. I was almost catatonic from exhaustion, but I was awake enough to have one of THOSE moments. Fully present, fully aware, fully conscious that something in my life was opening up, changing. And so I sang. "With the lights out, it's less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us." I sang all of it. All the way across the bridge, coming home to my goddamned city, trying to reclaim my goddamned life, and not having a fucking clue how I was going to do it, but trying to take advice from a dead rock star. The window was down and I had tears in my eyes and I wanted to glean meaning from a song that it had taken me a long time to even figure out the words to.
If you know the last words to the song, then you know what I found in Seattle. I'll spare you the story of not being able to go home again. But I still love that song, love that city, love that moment.