I’ve been learning the guitar. That’s a ridiculous thing to admit when I remember that I’m also doing a PhD and a half-dozen other things, but I learned the piano and saxophone growing up so when my old flatmate left for France he gave me his guitar. It's a cheap, battered thing that he bought off of Gumtree, but he gave it to me. “Happy learning,” read his note.
My current flatmates can appreciate why he waited. The first six months of my education were spent playing the same song—“House of the Rising Sun”—and that not very well. It became a running joke in our flat. We’d stumble home from a night of drinking and I’d orbit the guitar like it was gravity. Lucas, our Greek flatmate, would say, “Stephen! Play that song you know.” So I’d begin, stumbling over the chords—all of us singing off tune and mixing the lyrics—until finally I fumbled a close. Then Lucas would nod solemnly and say, “Now, play us that other one that you know. How does it go, again?” And together we’d start from the top.
My sister is a board-certified music therapist, so I’ve heard all about music and its effect on the mind. I wrote about narrative in a similar sense—that we structure our lives around it, use it to process our experiences—and lately I’ve been exploring narrative in trauma recovery: how telling a story can light up the brain on a PET scan like fireworks at Disneyland. So it’s incredible that “music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain than any other stimulus.” That’s Oliver Sacks talking, a famous contemporary neurologist, and he’s included language in those “other” stimuli.
When you reach a certain intimacy with an instrument, you’re able to play without thinking about which strings to hold, or what words to sing, but something else happens. You lose yourself in it—the act, the physicality of it—so that like writing, or getting into “flow,” you’re able to transcend yourself. The activity in your brain mirrors that of both orgasm and love, and the hormones released are not just dopamine but oxytocin as well, endorphins and serotonin, all of it spilling toward what is ultimately the pinnacle of human experience.
I graduated from “The Rising Sun” to learn Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt.” There are five chords to this song, but the lyrics are a punch in the gut. It starts, “I hurt myself today / to see if I still feel.”
I learned this song by practicing incessantly. I strummed chords while the oven warmed or while waiting my turn to use the shower, and I ran the lyrics through my head for days straight: on my way to the library, scrubbing my hair in the shower, even climbing out of bed in the morning.
What happened was their weight began to drag on me. I moved slower around the flat. I didn’t rush to work and I felt numb about things that used to annoy the shit out of me (like an overfull dish rack or an unclean sauté pan). My “empire of dirt” was eroding around me to the point that, singing low in the shower one day, I let fall what for months, years even, I had held relentlessly above my head. Casual thoughts plummeted to the depths of relativity, the vagueness of existentialism all of the way to an image of light traveling for centuries, millennia, only to fall here and now like a grain of sand in the desert. By the end of it, the scalding water rolling off of my arms felt like air.
Most people would say that this is a bad thing. Sadness, even when profound or purgative, is “unnecessary" and “dangerous.” My sister isn’t one of those people.
Shannon works for a music therapy company in San Diego that services hospice patients. “It’s a real challenge for our marketing consultants,” she’d say, “because every time they secure a new batch of patients, the old ones start dying off.”
We were drinking coffee at the Encinitas public library and I couldn’t help but laugh. It’s hard to think about death when you're sitting before the Pacific shimmer. From our perch above a slope of complexes and residences we could hear the waves break.
“Is it hard?” I asked, and she nodded.
“It can be sad, but it isn't depressing. I cry about every week,” she said, “but it’s great. I mean, death defines our lives and yet everyone’s trying to stuff it away in a nursing home or into the corner of a hospital. At least for me it’s a part of my everyday.”
I admire Shannon because she's my older sister, but also because she has a tendency to touch on powerful themes: like how sadness can be good. Ancient Athenians knew this when they developed tragic theatre around the idea of catharsis, but even our bodies demonstrate a need to purge. Tears are more polluted than sweat, each of them laden with toxins, and sometimes crying is the healthiest thing we can do.
Our culture has a tendency to shut out the “bad” despite the intense and profound beauty of sadness. We’ve all felt it listening to that one song when the emotional rush came like a wave from the Pacific. It’s the intake of mountain air after months in the city—diving headfirst into a spring-fed lake—and what it offers us, more than anything, is perspective.
I moved on from “Hurt” to “I’m Yours,” reviving my mood with the upbeat prep of Jason Mraz. Today, my repertoire consists of five, maybe six, songs.
But “Hurt” remains a flat favorite. Stumbling home after a late night, straining to reach those familiar depths: there is no laughter this time. The four of us sit in a meditative silence. Shoulders sag and heads loll to the subtle shifting of chords that, despite our lives or states of mind, somehow claims and embodies us all.
Photos by Joel Robison