My Subconscious Playlist

I have a song running through my head. What else is new?

It seems like every waking moment of the day there is some melody bouncing around my brain, most of the time just a line or two that echoes again and again. Today it’s a sweet, emotional tune that you may have heard if you’ve seen an episode of This Is Us. There are no lyrics echoing except for a repeated “da da da” and the soulful thrum of guitar chords and light percussion backing it up.

Most of the time I don’t know why certain songs end up in my head. This time I do. My mom and I have been bingeing on This Is Us over the past few days – a show that is simultaneously hilarious and heart-wrenching, making it utterly irresistible – and after so many hours watching I couldn’t shake the feeling the song gave me at the end of the episodes. So naturally I looked it up and listened to it on a loop, basically guaranteeing it a spot on my brain’s playlist.

But like I said, I often can’t trace the songs that appear on the playlist in my head. I’ll wake up humming tunes that I haven’t thought of in years. When silence fills a room I’ll sing random songs under my breath that seemingly come out of nowhere. There are many, many things that I do not and will never understand about the human brain. The subconscious playlist is one of them.

What I do know, however, is that music is one of those universal connections that we are so fortunate to have in our lives. It connects people to one another. Bonds formed through artists, songs, albums, concerts, and car radios can be some of the strongest in the world. Music connects people to their passions. I’m no real musician – though I can strum some chords on a guitar and can give a killer karaoke rendition of some Adele songs – but I still feel something burning inside me when I hear a good film score or find that perfect song it seems like I’d been waiting forever to hear. I know this is a common thing. And those who do consider themselves musicians, from the beginner piano players to the concert hall violinists to the casual singer to the rock band superstar, surely find passion in the form of musical notes ordered in unique tempos, patterns, and pitches. I find that so amazing, I respect it, and I am envious of those who make their living through it.

In my view, one of the most amazing connections that music brings is the connection to experiences. I love the moments when I hear a song and immediately think back to a specific time in my life, as if that song is interwoven into the memory. For instance, whenever I hear the song “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas, I think about driving in our old purple van and popping the cassette tape in on our way to summer camp when I was really young. Whenever I think about the song “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver I am instantly reminded of bright Sunday mornings when my brother and I were still in elementary school. We would run around the family room as our dad chased us and the light streamed in from the ceiling windows. Our mom would be in the kitchen making our very own “cakes on the griddle” and I was so happy I felt like my heart would burst right out of my chest.

I think of my 5th grade talent show whenever I hear “Walking on Sunshine” and the dance that Kendall and I spent hours choreographing in her living room. The song “Major Tom” brings with it memories of long car rides to my grandparents’ house in Oneonta, NY during which Jack and I would shout the countdown before the chorus and beg to play it just one more time.

A lot of song-connected-to-experiences that I have come from vacations and road trips. ELO albums and the Mamma Mia soundtrack are associated with Cape Cod. The songs “All of You” by Betty Who and “Nobody Love” by Tori Kelly were the songs of my beach trip with Julianne, blasted on top volume with the windows rolled down as the salty ocean breeze tangled our hair. And “Gold” by Kiiara was the senior week jam – again played at full volume as Michael, Betsy, Taya and I drove around Virginia Beach, tanned on the sandy shoreline, and spent our time soaking up the valuable memories that made up the end of our high school days.

Many songs are associated in my mind with high school. “Wake Me Up” by Avicii will forever be the song that played during early tennis preseason mornings. The Les Mis soundtrack also served as the soundtrack to drives home from church choir practice – Kendall, Andie and I would take on the roles and belt the ballads at the top of our lungs, much to the chagrin of our mom chauffeurs.

The list of song-connected-to-experiences goes on and on. Sometimes I forget that they exist at all until the first notes of a tune begin to play and the recollections come flooding back at full force as if the song prompted my mind to project a film reel of memories. Like whenever I hear “Closer” in the future I will be able to think of nothing but my freshman year at Penn State and my mind will start to play the movie of desks cluttered with makeup on Friday nights, of College Ave cluttered with young adults dressed to impress, of colorful lights in apartment windows changing color to the rhythm of State College’s youthful heartbeat.

I know that I cherish these connections. And I know that I will continue to cherish them. Whenever my mom or dad hears a song that triggers one of their own connections, I always love listening to the stories behind them. Whether it’s from my dad’s days in high school with his friends, or from my mom’s time in college with her roommates, there are always colorful details to be recounted as my dad laughs about a memory I will never fully understand or my mom reminisces on inside jokes I could never get myself.

Maybe one day I’ll be driving in the car with my children and a song will come on the radio – a song that sets my mind’s motion picture into action, playing out the events that come with it. I’ll explain to my kids the meaning of the song and I’ll describe my motion picture as best as I can, but it will be my moment, my memory shared only with the loved ones I was with at the time. These songs will be my little time machines. And if they get stuck in my head I won’t forget where they came from. These songs have a permanent and welcome spot on my subconscious playlist.

It’s a pretty thing to think about.

The Nostalgia Series

I just finished my first year at Penn State and I have to say, though this is cliche, I can't believe how fast time passes. It feels like just yesterday that I was moving into my dorm - unpacking enormous amounts of clothes that I would never wear, arguing with my family over stupid things like the television cable, and trying to ignore the heavy feeling of change weighing down on my chest. Moving in felt like adulthood had punched me in the stomach. Soon I wouldn't be reporting into my parents every day after school. Soon I wouldn't be sharing the same roof with them as I had for 18 years; I wouldn't be able to walk downstairs to a fully prepared lunch or have the ability to put my hamper in the hallway and find my clothes clean and freshly folded in a laundry basket later that day. (Disclaimer: I knew how to do my laundry. I just didn't want to interrupt my mom's clothes-washing schedule, or at least that's the excuse my lazy self gave at the time)

Don't get me wrong, I was ready for adulthood. I wanted freedom from the constraints of childhood protectiveness. I was excited to make decisions on my own about where to go and when without having to text my mom about who I was with and my ETA for returning home. But sometimes I felt like I was teetering; like I was caught on the precipice between young dependency and mature individuality, the wind blowing me in a different direction on any given day. I spent a year in college dipping my toes into the side of adulthood - the side of making appointments and scheduling events, of finding out who I was on my own without any help.

But when I returned home for the summer, it was hard not to feel the pull of my childhood. It was everywhere I turned, from the tween posters adorning my bedroom walls that I never bothered to take down, to the early 2000s Disney World photographs framed on side tables, to the bins in our guest room teeming with toys and games that had been collecting a fine layer of dust. We've gotten rid of some toys and games, but we can't bear to get rid of all. Getting rid of my stuffed animal collection that currently resides in the corner of the guest room would be like severing one of the strongest ties to my earliest memories. I can't fathom a time I will be able to do that. My own children will probably someday be playing with the stuffed zebra I pleaded with my mom to get me at Target when I was six, or the stuffed bear I won in an arcade game at age eight and rarely let out of my sight.

Each stuffed animal - along with each toy, game, poster, and photograph - carries with it its own memories. They act as keys that unlock certain aspects of my childhood, and even by mere glance at some or the touch of others I am able to return to those precious recollections. My brother and I always talk about a collection of computer and video games we used to play non-stop when we were younger - the collection we have now nicknamed "the nostalgia series" for obvious reasons. Games in the series include Crash Bandicoot, Hot Wheels Mechanics, Backyard Baseball, the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone computer game, Roller Coaster Tycoon, and my personal favorite - a Playstation 2 game called Road Trip.

Memories of playing these games with Jack are as clear as day. We would sit on our tiny chairs in front of the bulky guest room desktop computer - I, in my nightgown with blankies in tow, Jack in sweatshirt and gym shorts ready to race his pimped out cars in Hot Wheels or hit a homer with speedster Pete Wheeler in Backyard Baseball. I was a perfectly content observer, leaving my big brother to the hard part while I sat back and watched for hours. I did get in on Roller Coaster Tycoon, but at that age I didn't understand the objectives of building each park. So when my roller coasters inevitably crashed and the park was shut down, I would ameliorate the issue by trapping in my guests with a "do not enter" sign at the entrance as the park rating plummeted. Not the most ideal game play. However, I believe that the purpose of any game for young kids is to have fun and you bet I was as I watched the helpless guests' futile search for escape.

Sometimes, even now, Jack and I will dust off the computer games and put them back into the desktop computer which whirs loudly and tiredly after so many years of commission. The familiar tunes that grace the speakers when the Roller Coaster Tycoon main menu pops up will forever flood my mind with the sentiments of childhood. We'll look back at the parks we made back in 2005 and 2006, and it's not uncommon to hear the utterance of phrases like "Oh, I remember this roller coaster" or "I remember making that food court" when we do so. Adventure games like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Road Trip - with their painfully pixelated graphics that went unnoticed by our elementary school selves - have been completed multiple times over. But when Jack and I are feeling nostalgic we choose to ignore this. We'll start the games over like it's the first time, trying to pretend that we don't know exactly which corridors to turn down or which buttons to push.

If I were granted three wishes right now, I think one of them would be to have the ability to experience anything I wanted for the first time again. I'd give anything to have back my childhood thrill of winning a race in Road Trip, or watching Jack win a championship in Backyard Baseball. But then again, I am comforted by the thought that some of the best moments I will experience in my life have yet to happen. Here is that conflict again; that teetering between wanting to go back and wanting to move forward. I miss what once was while simultaneously yearning for the future. Being caught in this back and forth ebb and flow between past and future is exhausting sometimes. And I don't want to constantly be stuck in a state of wishing I were somewhere else, which is why now I have to focus on the present down to the hour, minute, second. So much in the world changes between each breath I take -  the sights, the sounds, the smells - and I have gradually learned that this is something I can't and shouldn't take advantage of. There's no gift like the present, right?

Still, that doesn't mean I can't look fondly back on my younger years. I'm grateful that I had such a wonderful childhood to reminisce on. And whenever I feel like I do want to spend sometime blissfully basking in the memories of the nostalgia series, I know that the same old desktop will be waiting for me in the guest room. I'll have the same old Playstation and the same old games. And Jack and I will sit in the same tiny chairs, though we may have to stretch our legs a bit.