The other night, I put some finishing touches on a transcription I made of a song I wrote in 2006, my senior year of high school, a fresh-faced 17-year-old prog nerd.
As I played it back, I began to cry.
What’s happening? Why is this happening?
I don’t consider myself much a sentimental or nostalgic person. On the contrary, I don’t think much about my past, partially because I don’t remember much. Broad contours, sure — in general, I can remember that things happened, but I can’t put myself in the time and place and recall what I experienced. People will quote things back to me that sound like things I would say, but I can’t remember saying them. Likewise, things I did.
It’s not that much of a surprise. I’ve dealt with pretty gnarly depression and anxiety my whole life, and being in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight doesn’t bode well for long-term biographical memory. Throw in many episodes of depersonalization/derealization disorder (DPDR — described perfectly in the song “Is Happiness Just a Word?” by Vinnie Paz), and the result is that whole years have been excised from my memory.
But I remember the songs I wrote. They’re inscribed on my nervous system, and my hands restore them with full clarity every time I play them. That’s what brought me to tears: the realization that while parts of me feel irretrievable, I’ve preserved myself throughout the years in song. I haven’t annihilated my former self just yet — she gave me tokens to recall her by.
Flashes of memories came along with it, too. For the first time in years, I remembered that I wrote part of “Mural On the Moon” on a baby grand piano backstage during play season, during some downtime. A few of the other play kids would gather around the piano sometimes, either slumping with fatigue against the massive object or politely listening in. Writing music in front of other people is excruciatingly vulnerable for me, but so are many other aspects of putting on a musical with a cast of high school students that inure you to insecurity, so it was a special set of circumstances.
And when pursued to its eventual ends, vulnerability can have some life-changing consequences, both catastrophic and euphoric. It is the ultimate risk of the heart to dissolve into other humans in that way. If anything, that’s what “Mural On the Moon” is about:
I tried to leave your rays behind —
abandon my heart, collapse into my mind —
but in the flicker of your candle-glance,
reason doesn’t stand a chance.
So I’ll be departing soon
to paint a mural on the moon.
(The song was an extended metaphor for my struggle to tell this one kid how I felt about him, making it one of two love songs I’ve ever written. Talk about vulnerability.)
I remember Heather, still one of the most unfailingly sweet human beings I’ve met, hearing me play the opening bit and saying, “That’s really pretty — like a butterfly fluttering through a garden.” She’s the reason the song exists, in fact. I thought the intro conceit was too saccharine sweet, but she pushed me out of my comfort zone. (After all, the notes came from my head. Maybe they exposed a part of myself I was denying or repressing, a Freudian slip.)
It’s easy to recall that I wrote the song in winter, given the snow imagery in the first verse. That winter was particularly tough for me. I had my first (but unfortunately, not last) brushes with passive — but intense and sometimes intrusive — suicidal ideation. I remember driving home in one particular blizzard, not being able to see the rural roads whatsoever, and realizing that my windows weren’t defrosting. I rolled my window down and stuck my head out, using the Christmas lights on people’s houses to figure out where I was (and where the road was). I felt in danger of death, and yet, I didn’t find the prospect unwelcome. Again, there’s a reason I don’t remember much from that year.
I can’t rely on an imperfect hippocampus forever, though. I’ve slowly been transcribing old songs, in part, so I don’t have the option of forgetting them. They can live on if I lose my memory (or my life) in a freak accident, or if the slow, inevitable degradation of my mind with age proceeds with more haste than I’d prefer.
Seeing my song on the page, I started to view the 13-year-old artifact with new eyes. I could visually see the key changes, the syncopations, the guts of the thing. I saw things so typical of my playing and writing at the time, and things I continue to do to this day.
All of that is why I cried transcribing a song I wrote 13 years ago.