Curved corridor

This morning, apropos of nothing, I woke up with Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” endlessly repeating in my head. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard the song–probably years, maybe decades ago–but there it was playing on the jukebox of my mind, randomly alternating between Neil Young’s original version and Michael Hedges’ instrumental cover.

Where did either song come from, other than the deep recesses of memory? There are CDs that bring me to my emotional knees when I revisit them: Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, for example, or Peter Gabriel’s Us. These albums are so interwoven with a particular time in my life, I immediately recall where and who I was when I listened to them endlessly, their songs providing a sonic bridge to my past.

I don’t have the same emotional connection with “After the Gold Rush”: it’s a song I’ve heard, for sure, but not one I’ve intentionally listened to time and again. But apparently it’s embedded itself into my consciousness, for this morning it randomly popped up from the auditory flotsam of my mind, a spontaneous and nonsensical earworm.

Popular wisdom says scents are connected most closely with memory, the scent of Proust’s madeleines triggering a flood of childhood recollections. But as someone who can smell only occasionally, I am more emotionally susceptible to sound than scent.

When I walk with friends, they will sometimes be stopped in their tracks by a specific and striking smell: for example, a gentle waft of lilac. But the things that stop me are sounds: a house wren singing in a rhododendron, or a brood of starlings churring in a tree cavity high overhead.

When I walk with friends, they seem to focus primarily on human sounds–the words we exchange–while I experience sound as a layered tapestry where words are the embroidered surface and birdsong or other ambient music are the woven warp and woof underneath.

Songs weave themselves into memory almost unconsciously–like a jingle you can’t forget–and occasionally years later the thread of a particular song frays loose at random, exposed at the tattered edge of sleep.


After dark

The past few days, apropos of nothing, I’ve had Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” playing in my head. It’s an unlikely earworm: I don’t often listen to jazz, and I can’t remember the last time I heard Monk or anyone else play this particular tune. But its somber strains seem especially apt on these late November days when darkness falls early. By six o’clock, it’s dark as midnight, and the melancholy mood of late night descends early and lingers long.

After dark

On these late November days when it’s long-dark by dinnertime, I find myself peering into strangers’ windows as I drive past, attracted to their isolated but brightly-lit domestic scenes: a woman setting a table, a man playing table-tennis with an unseen opponent, a couple curled up on a couch, watching television. What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t concern me for most of the year, but in late November, even a glimpse of domestic warmth seen through strangers’ windows is cheering: a spot of encouragement in a dark time. And true to the logic of dreams, my inner DJ has chosen “Round Midnight” as the appropriate soundtrack for these dark days

Wall at Central Square

For much of this week I’ve had the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” stuck in my head, the melody and lyrics wending in and out of consciousness. I’m prone to earworms, and I sometimes wake up with a song in my head that I haven’t heard in years as if someone pushed a random set of buttons into my mental jukebox. Memory is strange: how can I call up at random the lyrics and melodies of countless pop songs while struggling to remember names, phone numbers, or my own grocery list?

Wall at Central Square

As earworms go, I could do far worse than have the Beach Boys stuck in my head. I remember being amazed the first time I heard “God Only Knows”: the melody is simultaneously surprising and simple, with every note in its perfect place. I can’t imagine how someone writes a melody like “God Only Knows.” It’s a sequence of notes and a progression of chords I can’t see myself ever inventing, even at the end of a lifetime of humming…and yet the first time I heard “God Only Knows,” I couldn’t believe the earth managed to turn on its axis all the eons before that melody was known.

Wall at Central Square

When long-time Boston mayor Tom Menino left the hospital last year after a string of health problems, reporters asked him about his future plans, and he answered with a remark that made front page headlines: “God only knows.” Menino has since stepped down as mayor, and this past week he announced he’s battling advanced cancer, his doctors being unable to determine where the metastasized cells originated from.

When asked by his disciples whether God exists, the Buddha famously refused to answer, claiming that asking about God is like pondering the nature, maker, or trajectory of an arrow that has mortally injured a man. As a man lies dying, does it matter who we might blame? If God exists, he alone knows when and where Menino’s cancer came from, or where Flight 370 is, or what our own futures hold…but even if God doesn’t know, what does it matter? Once you’ve been shot by mortality, you can’t be saved by speculation. We tell ourselves that knowing will bring comfort and closure, but does it, really?

Wall at Central Square

On Wednesday night, I went to the Zen Center after too many weeks away from my cushion. Why is it I avoid a practice I need so desperately, my entire being falling into grateful exhaustion the moment I simply stop? God only knows.

Whenever I drive to the Zen Center, I pass the Cambridge gas station where the 26-year-old man carjacked by the Tsarnaev brothers last April finally escaped to freedom: a tale as haunting as any Beach Boys tune. “Death is so close to me,” the carjack victim, identified only as “Danny” in news reports, recalled thinking: “I don’t want to die….I have a lot of dreams that haven’t come true yet.”

Wall at Central Square

I think of “Danny” every time I pass the pair of gas stations at the corner of River Street and Memorial Drive, where he bolted from his car after the Tsarnaev brothers ordered him to stop for gas. By what accident of fate or chance was it “Danny” who was carjacked at gunpoint and not you or me? On any given night on our way from Here to There, what are the chances we’ll fall victim to cancer, carjacking, or a wayward jet randomly falling out of the sky?

God only knows what the future holds; God only knows what the next moment may bring. If I can’t understand the working of my own memory and the way it holds, retrieves, and replays snippets of a song I haven’t heard in years, how can I fathom to guess what tomorrow, the next day, or the next might offer, the path of our lives being as random and haunting as any unforgettable tune.