The Summery Sweetness of Eaux Claires

Rare are the times when a moment is so perfect you recognize it while it’s happening. Usually that kind of appreciation happens after the fact, when reflection takes over and lends the past a rosy hue.

Let me take you back to one such night in the summer of 2015.

Bon Iver had been silent—in the sense of playing live music—for sometime. After releasing his second, self-titled album in 2011, and touring extensively behind its more expansive sound, Justin Vernon had retreated. By 2015, it had been three years since he’d performed.

The inaugural Eaux Claires, held July 17-18, 2015.

It took a music festival, and the creative control that kind of event offered, to entice Vernon back onstage. Beginning in early 2015, he teamed with The National’s Aaron Dessner to begin launching Eaux Claires—a two-day collaborative extravaganza set along the Chippewa River, in Vernon’s hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Among a smorgasbord of music from every genre imaginable, the inaugural July weekend would also feature a Bon Iver headlining set.

My ears pricked up.

Back then, I lived in Champaign, Illinois, a six-hour drive from Eau Claire. After years in Louisiana, I’d been learning the language of midwestern music, and Eaux Claires offered a chance to deepen that knowledge, to see some of the midwestern bands I’d recently heard live while enjoying some of my favorites, like Charles Bradley, Hiss Golden Messenger, Sturgill Simpson, and The Lone Bellow.

All of that PLUS a Bon Iver headlining set? Twist my arm.

I texted my friend Melissa, who adored The Lone Bellow, and suddenly our “Wouldn’t it be fun if…?” morphed into actual plans. Mel purchased a festival ticket, while I began pitching outlets. At the time, I’d been freelancing more and more in the hopes of transitioning my local-heavy writing into national bylines. When I pitched Consequence of Sound about reviewing the weekend, I was thrilled they said “yes.”

An artsy window shot of Melissa and I gorging on cheese curds in downtown Eau Claire.

It marked my first major event coverage. But not just words—I’d be taking photos, too. I spent the entirety of the festival scrambling from stage-to-stage, capturing images from each set’s first three songs, before checking in with Melissa, who regularly inserted herself into the audience, and then dashing off to the next show. After nearly a year spent pushing paper in an office that took “soul crushing” to a new extreme, I thrilled at what music journalism—actual on-the-ground musical journalism—felt like. Part of me knew I’d never go back to a world where I couldn’t participate in it to some degree.

But enough wind-up to this pitch. I can’t remember exactly when Bon Iver became one of my favorite bands, though my listening had skewed heavily in their favor for a few years by then, but it all solidified that Saturday evening in Eau Claire.

The Chippewa River.

By the time their set rolled around, I was exhausted. There’s a different kind of physicality required to covering a festival rather than simply attending, and I wasn’t prepared for that amount of go-go-go. Plus, it had been hot with a capital H. But my onsite work was done. My co-writer would be taking photographs and handling the Bon Iver blurb, so I could take it all in and simply listen.

Melissa and I grabbed beers and found spots about midway back from the stage—room enough to enjoy Bon Iver without the dense press of a crowd. The sun dipped behind the trees lining the festival field; the stars slowly sparkled to life. I remember tilting my head back and drinking in the dusky beauty of the moment.

Fans, including those that had parked themselves in front of the stage barrier since the gates opened that day, began chanting and tossing beach balls around. Anticipation ran high. We’d finally, collectively, reached the reason so many of us had traveled far and wide, had taken a chance on a brand new festival.

The lights dimmed as Bon Iver took the stage, breaking into “Heavenly Father,” the song Vernon contributed to Zach Braff’s 2014 film Wish I Was Here. The opening monk-like chants, done with a kind of android-esque effect on loop, suddenly felt as spacious as the Wisconsin night sky. The stage stayed mostly dark for the remainder of that opening incantation, before Vernon began singing in his chest voice, which, as a side note, might be one of my favorite sounds on this planet. It’s a resonant baritone that nestles in my solar plexus every time I hear it.  

Gazing at the stage where Bon Iver headlined on Saturday, July 18.

In the midst of the song, I again gazed up at the sky, tracking the growing number of stars that were visible now that the last light of day had faded. Something about taking in that bejeweled sky, feeling affixed to the earth and partner to a small piece of magic, left me awed. I felt the perfection of the moment acutely.

I ended up returning for the next three versions of Eaux Claires—in 2016, 2017, and 2018—until the festival went on hiatus, giving organizers time to rethink its form and function. Rumor had it they would be moving the festival from one onsite location, by the river, and scattering shows throughout downtown Eau Claire. But that never came to fruition because the year it should’ve returned, 2020, was well…you know.

I’m not exactly an avid festival goer, but that inaugural weekend fostered some deep and abiding love for Eaux Claires that remains to this day. As soon as they announce Eaux Claires V, I’ll be back. But I’ll never forget that Saturday night in July, when I felt some connection with the great wide open of this strange and lovely existence, soundtracked by Bon Iver’s return. It was magic and all the more special because I recognized it then and there. No need to wait until memory casts its emotional glow. I felt the power of meaning in the moment.

Burnout By Any Other Name…

It’s never a good sign when the art that most enlivens you begins to feel draining, when staring at the wall feels more restful than engaging with an introspective song or a lyrical passage in a book.

The term burnout has been bandied about in recent years, most regularly ascribed to someone whose work-related stress has placed them on the spectrum of mildly-drained-to-emotionally-destitute. It reached peak buzzword when journalist Anne Helen Petersen claimed it as the ultimate millennial problem. In actuality, it’s closer to workplace-induced depression. But burnout has cache, while depression does not.

On some level depression makes sense. When music and books and film—the creative pursuits that provoke a hearty thrum in your spirit—stop feeling meaningful, it’s a symptom of a larger problem. And people with depression tend to withdraw from activities they formerly enjoyed.

But while burnout has become a catchall diagnosis for work’s never-ending demands and the physical, psychological, and emotional effects of those pressures, I find that its meaning (even as a form of depression) has fallen increasingly short. Because it’s used to describe such a sweeping experience, and because the means to overcome it remain hazy at best, it feels more nebulous than ever.

One phrase I recently stumbled upon has offered a new perspective. In Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, he describes a time in his life that many would now equate with burnout. But he called it “spiritually empty.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, but, for me, “spiritual exhaustion” gets closer to the problem.

And why wouldn’t it? Late stage capitalism has turned us into products as much as we’re expected to produce. We are noun and verb, operating in an endless sentence. As Frederic Jameson explained, under capitalism “everything, everywhere, became commodified and consumable.” In such a society, our spirituality exists only in and for the marketplace.

It’s an exhausting churn that would leave anyone emotionally bereft, looking for meaning but unable to pursue it because we’re too exhausted from the never-ending demands of our day and the roles we’re meant to play therein. We produce, we acquire, we consume, the result of which leaves us vacant and untethered.

I mention all of this, on a music blog no less, because it’s been a strange summer for me. I have the freedom, time, and space to listen to music as late and as long as I’d like, but the amount I’ve read and written about it—two sides of a coin that I’ve long enjoyed tossing—has significantly decreased. I cannot bring myself to sit still long enough to get lost in a book, and, perhaps more frightening, I do not want to sit down to write.

Under contemporary lexicon, it’s burnout, but the more powerful claim seems to be spiritual emptiness. It’s a deep and abiding malaise, which makes sense given the ongoing pandemic, the cult-like adherence to misinformation, climate emergencies, increasingly restrictive legislature, and any number of new and pressing crises that arise on a now-daily basis. It’s been a season ripe for anxiety and the result, it would seem, has been a lingering spiritual emptiness. 

I don’t know the answer—or the antidote, for that matter. I don’t know the way back to creative pursuits that require energy when I feel so depleted. “Unplugging” from what my friend calls the “distraction industrial complex” and choosing instead to play records from my finite collection has helped to a small degree. Lately, I’ve been burrowing into the sounds of Allen Toussaint’s 2012 album The Bright Mississippi. The way he practically tap dances over the piano feels akin to a balm, a kind of deep breath that I didn’t know I needed to take.

Playing Toussaint and other records isn’t going to solve the larger issue of burnout, spiritual emptiness, or whatever you want to call it. But it does offer a brief rest, one that can hopefully feed the spirit until you’re nourished enough to keep going—and maybe one day eventually sated enough to thrive. 

Movement & Location

People move for all kinds of reasons—a job, a relationship, to be closer to family. Sometimes it’s just a matter of changing scenery or finally taking up residence in a city you’ve long loved.

I recently moved for my records.

You read that right. I mean, we can say it was for other reasons, like a growing desire to get away from apartment living, or crummy neighbors who don’t understand how sonorously subwoofers carry across thin walls, or to be closer to the “action” of downtown Durham. All of those hold a degree of truth.

But the reality is that I moved for my records.

I moved because I’m a considerate and selfish listener. Considerate because, when I know there are people living around and beneath me, I’m not going to play my music very loud. And selfish because, really, what’s the point of listening if you can’t do that at least a few times? Headphones only go so far. Sometimes, like say when you’re cooking, you want to crank Stevie Wonder all the way up so the bass line vibrations of “Sir Duke” lend themselves to the very best sauce possible.

In all the years I’ve rented, I’ve never rented a house. It was mostly apartments and duplexes—and they were nice apartments and duplexes, but shared walls meant being aware of your neighbors, so inevitably there were limitations to what, when, and how I could play my stereo. Like a kind of musical Goldilocks, it was always a little too much: Don’t play records too early or too late, certainly not too loud, and never too long.

I hadn’t planned on renting a house because, as a disturbing new study has found, rental markets are horrendous. Even in cities where it’s mildly more affordable than the coastal metropolises, it’s still not very. But when luck threw a good find my way, the slight uptick in rent seemed like a reasonable tradeoff if it meant enjoying my space—and my stereo—more.

Forget a room of one’s own, here’s to a house.

So I moved for my records.

I’ve documented before what they mean to me. In fact, in that prior blog post, I shared the thrill of getting to play one of my favorites, Punch Brothers‘ 2012 album Who’s Feeling Young Now?, loudly on one of my last nights in New Orleans, when I knew my neighbor was at work and the volume wouldn’t bother her.

Since moving into my new place, I haven’t played the album. In fact, it’d been some time since I’d put it on. The opening track “Movement and Location” is too true to hear sometimes. The lyrics, partially, but I mean more the music itself. When I hear that opening agitated fiddle-banjo phrasing and the bass pacing around in a kind of antsy delirium, something in my stomach but more likely my soul goes, “This!”

Punch Brothers approach bluegrass with a classical twist, building breathtaking arrangements and time signature changes that elevate the genre. I adore their entire catalogue, but “Movement and Location” has long been my favorite song of theirs. Maybe it’s the subject matter—the energy of migration, a choice I’m fond of and have discussed elsewhere on this site—or maybe it’s such a beautifully realized and rendered song between its emotional build and pace and vitality.

It’s not that “Movement and Location”—or any song or album, for that matter—sounds better loud, but there’s a certain release when you don’t have to worry about whether your music is imposing on anyone else. I know I tend to overthink these things, but I also know what it’s like to be on the other side, to hear an inconsiderate neighbor start blaring their music at the worst possible time. I never want—or wanted—to be that person, so as much as I could slip into an album when I played one, I could never really let myself go.

The other night, a solid month into my new living situation, I played Who’s Feeling Young Now?, which inevitably brought me back to that night in New Orleans when I cranked the volume. This time, it wasn’t a brief escape while my neighbor was out. I didn’t have to be considerate or concerned that my stereo was disturbing anyone. I didn’t have to worry about the time of night and who I might be bothering. It was divine. I’ve long known the thrill of movement, but the thrill of location was mine at last.

The Ephemerality of Streaming

This is going to sound like a daft thing to complain about considering the endless amount of music that now exists at our fingertips, but I’ll never acclimate to how quickly songs slip in and out of my life under the streaming model. There are, of course, many times throughout the day when I purposely play something and consciously listen to it, but the ubiquity of streaming music—and the way it soundtracks much of daily existence—means that certain songs escape my full attention and fail to lodge in my memory.

You could chalk it up to a lack of attention on my part, or the sheer quantity of songs and the fact that many now exist independently of the albums that once structured them, but I wonder how much of it has to do with the ephemerality of streaming versus more enduring physical media, like vinyl records, CDs, or cassettes. Those forms have greater permanence, thereby shifting our engagement with the music they house as well as the memories we form about and around said music.

For me, one of the more telling moments of ephemerality—or early senility—came last summer when, seemingly out of nowhere, the opening piano phrase of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” popped into my head. At the time, I couldn’t remember who sang it or the song’s title, but I knew it was an 80s new wave classic, so I started poring over playlists. After two hours of what felt like an increasingly harried rabbit hole, I found it. Oh glory!

But then a month went by and one evening I remembered that funny time when an 80s new wave song got stuck in my head and how hard it was to find. Gee, what was that song again? It’s not as though much time had passed, but there’d been so much else to think about and remember—and then there was all the music I’d heard in the interim. Neither the band nor the song title came to mind. Again. It was gone into the ether.

You could argue, rightly so, that if I was more familiar with Tears for Fears or 80s new wave, it wouldn’t have been such a big to-do. After all, background and context help prop up memory, and are instrumental to any search. But it signaled a larger quandary, even after I found “Head Over Heels” again and used Spotify’s handy “Liked Songs” option this time. (Now, every time I hear a song I remotely enjoy, I make sure to save it because it’s the best way to find it should I forget, which I regularly do.)

My point, if I can be said to have one, is that vinyl—or really any physical music media—seems to offer such a different experience. Sure, none of us purchase as much vinyl as songs we stream (unless you’re Questlove—God bless that man’s collection), so a collection, being narrower by default, is easier to remember. We’re also likely to return to it frequently enough that it bolsters our memory of what we’re playing.

But maybe the problem with streaming and ephemerality comes down to ownership, a topic I’ve been thinking of lately especially in light of vinyl and especially in light of a vinyl collection. Russell Belk wrote in his 1988 article on possessions and identity formation, “Because of the purposefulness and the commitment of time and energy spent in developing a collection, it is natural that a collection may be seen as more a part of one’s self than are isolated consumption items.”

There’s something to be said about the way possessions help us form and define ourselves; the objects we acquire and keep around us not only say something about who we are but actively feed into this larger idea of our self and our memory. Physical objects can—not always—prop up memory. I always use books versus digital articles or e-readers when explaining the phenomenon. When we read a book, we map it out as a space and can therefore find previous passages easier than on an e-reader. You may remember around what part of the book a bit of action occurred, but on an e-reader it’ll be harder to find than if you’d been reading a physical book.

Streaming and even purchased MP3s are only ever borrowed forms of music. And with streaming there’s the sheer number of songs that churn through your consciousness on a daily basis. On the one hand, I’m grateful to have such rich access to the catalogues of my favorite musicians as well as artists I’ve only likely discovered thanks to the streaming model. I realize what it offers, though don’t get me started on their inequitable pay structure.

But on the other hand, what do we sacrifice by engaging with such an ephemeral form of music? And, yes, I know that music itself is only ever ephemeral, but I’m talking about the forms—the media—used to transmit that moment, that experience. Will all of this streaming leave us fragmented and forgetting the amazing song we couldn’t stop playing last year but now can’t place, overwhelmed by the options and remembering not a one?

On Cringeworthy Listening Histories

I often succumb to the obstructive instinct of curation. It’s one of my fatal flaws, and it’s only gotten worse with social media and the rise of platforms like Instagram, where perfection has been commodified in ways narrowing and detrimental, but I can’t blame the apps entirely. Some part of me has always resisted being fully seen. In many ways, getting to know me means getting to know only the bits I choose to share.

A part of that instinct—to hide what isn’t pretty and focus on what is—includes music, namely my listening history. Given the place music holds in my life, as well as the writing I do about it and the breadth of my listening and the way it’s all blossomed into a kind of identity, it’s been hard at times to cop to past tastes. I rarely talk about what I listened to in high school because I find it embarrassing. But why?

To my way of thinking, music functions as a language. The wider you listen, the more you come to grasp the “grammar,” priming your ears for elements like dissonance or syncopation or contrapuntal music. Listening more narrowly, that is shifting your focus only to what’s fun or easy, makes it harder to engage with something complex. You lack the structure. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start off with easier sounds and develop from there—building blocks being the fundamental part to any learning process.

So maybe this is all to say that we follow different paths to our current listening tastes; mine started out rather rudimentary but has since grown into an eclecticism I’m quite proud of. Still, perhaps it’s because of that pride that I feel embarrassed about my teenage years when I fell hard for the seemingly layered and complicated sounds of one Mr. Dave Matthews and his Band.

It started with 1996’s Crash and grew from there, moving backwards through their earlier music, 1993’s Remember Two Things and 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming, and forward with 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets and 2001’s Everyday.

My love for DMB far exceeded the music itself. DMB posters lined my bedroom; I was a (card carrying!) member of the DMB fan club; I bought their limited edition Ben & Jerry’s flavor ‘One Sweet Whirled’; and I dragged my high school boyfriend Terry to what was then known as Sunrise Amphitheater every summer when they inevitably toured. Or, I should say, Terry allowed me to drag him since his family owned box seats.

Recently, the podcast Bandsplain attempted to contextualize and clarify what it was about DMB that attracted such a following. As critic Grayson Haver Currin put it, they offer “virtuosity and easy accessibility.” They brought together elements from other genres—jazz, bluegrass—and built a kind of jam band-ish alt-rock. Though they lacked the skill to be a true jam band, they knew enough to “crack open” their studio cuts and create a memorable live version.

I remember thinking how sophisticated it all sounded as a 16-year-old. Their live shows were a marvel, and I imagine still are, which is why they continue selling out their summer dates and why their major output since their early catalogue has largely been live recordings.

But in re-listening to their music recently, I couldn’t hear the textual marvel I thought the songs displayed when I was younger. I did, however, hear fiddle lines that would lead me to bluegrass, and drumming that would lead me to jazz and math rock, and West African-influenced phrasing that would lead me to a deep-seeded love of Malian guitar, and other threads that would develop into the sounds that comprise my tastes today.

I’m not saying DMB laid the exact foundation, but perhaps it trained my ear to engage with a variety of sounds that weren’t readily available for easy consumption at the time. Unless you were a kid in the know about music, which I very much was not at that age, DMB was a door into a world of complexity and wonder.

In fact, Currin pointed out on Bandsplain that while DMB were working on the follow-up to Everyday (what would become the darker album later released as The Lillywhite Sessions), they backed away from what was becoming a melancholy sound for them, scrapped their songs, and instead released the far happier Busted Stuff in 2002. It was around that point, which coincided with my graduating high school and venturing off into new tastes, where I fell away from the band.

Busted Stuff displayed a glossy sheen that didn’t interest me. Funnily enough, the anodyne quality I heard back then has largely defined what I hear now. Re-listening to DMB brings back memories rather than moments of musical connection that have stood the test of time. I can throw on any number of older songs or albums I haven’t heard in years and enjoy the music. But not so with DMB.

As for being embarrassed about my former devotion to the band, that’s something I’ll have to come to terms with as I work on shedding the obfuscating instinct to hide my real self in favor of a glossier version. I suppose the true shame would be if my listening ever stopped, if my curiosity faded. I’ll own my DMB past any day if it means I can point to it and show you how much I’ve grown, how it’s just one sound among many with still more to come.

Long Walks with Waxahatchee

At the start of the pandemic, somewhere around mid-March, I started taking long walks after work. With routines not just interrupted but in complete tatters, I set a new one for myself, tracing my own map of Brooklyn with nothing but my stride.

I’d sign off my computer, grab my over ear headphones, and cast off for some direction that felt fitting that day: north to Brooklyn Heights, east to Prospect Park, south(ish) to Windsor Terrace, or west to Red Hook. Those early months were noticeably empty in the evenings, and the city felt heavy with despair. Walking became my way through, a means of treading water until I could escape the rip tide pulling me away from shore.

Eventually my initial compass whittled down from four points to simply north and west—the latter far more than the former. Red Hook became the escape. I didn’t know it at the time, but I sought the water.

Maybe your origins have little to do with your affinity to being by water—after all, it does seem almost primitive to enjoy that part of nature—but I thank my early years on Toronto’s lakeside beaches and extensive time at my grandparents’ cottage on Lake Nipissing with shaping my craving for lakes, rivers, oceans, and all manner of watery expanse. The lap of the water—its soothing, steadying rhythm—satisfies some yearning in me that never fully stills.

It was in the spring pandemic months that Waxahatchee‘s album Saint Cloud arrived. It showed up at the perfect time, which was also somehow the hardest, so I guess Dickens called it after all. Initially, I tried out many different songs for those long walks, but only something brand new would do—a blank canvas on which to paint the experience of an unfolding global crisis, and its devastating impact on the city.

The Statue of Liberty watches over the bay.

The country-influenced, Americana-leaning album marked a departure from singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s previous work as Waxahatchee: her dark, growling rock on 2017’s Out in the Storm; her electrifying Merge debut, 2015’s Ivy Tripp; and her previous two lo-fi LPs. Saint Cloud felt capacious and warm. From the way her protracted vocals take up space on the opening track “Oxbow,” I felt a hesitant flowering that shifted into a steady assurance, as if Crutchfield had crossed her arms, raised her chin, and was staring you down in the parking lot. I needed that grit at the time.

The album dealt largely in her new sobriety, a choice she feared would limit her songwriting potential, but instead maximized it. Without the numbing haze that had followed her around, Crutchfield stumbled into a bright-eyed wonder. The album sounds like golden hour—that magic time of day when the setting sun’s waning light softens everything it touches.

“Lilacs” remains a standout for me—a song about the passage of time, about watching its ebb and flow by way of something’s bloom and decline, and how that circularity plays out on the larger stage of our choices. “If I’m a broken record, write it in the dust, babe/ I’ll fill myself back up like I used to do,” she sings, her voice full of vim and vigor.

Even though Crutchfield wrote and recorded the album before a pandemic crossed anyone’s mind, her culminating song and title track “St. Cloud” is oddly prescient, especially given the context in which I first listened to it. Though a good deal of Saint Cloud situates Crutchfield in her native south, the final two songs return her to Manhattan.

On “St. Cloud,” she sings, with an almost dirge-like piano structuring her vocals, “When you get back on the M train/ Watch the city mutate/ Where do you go when your mind starts/ To lose its perfected shape?/ Virtuosic, idealistic, musing a fall from grace/I guess the dead just go on living/ At the darkest edge of space.” That last line in particular haunted the moment. We’d lost over 30,000 New Yorkers between March and May, yet their deaths felt strangely abstract. Stuck as we were in our tiny boxes, we had only the endless wails of the ambulance sirens to alert us to the growing toll. “St. Cloud” gave voice to the grief—it feels like a memorial written in real time.

Beyond the emergency of the larger moment, everything felt in disarray. I was close to ending the most stable relationship I’d known. Although we’d been looking for an apartment together since November—a serious step forward with light talk of marriage fluttering at the edges—things had taken a strange nosedive in January and our recovery hadn’t come close to stabilizing when the pandemic hit. I asked for time apart and those long walks clarified our approaching end. “Arkadelphia” just handed me the sentiment, the way, if you’re lucky, a song will articulate a hazy feeling: “If you get real close to the ending/ I hope you know I did what I could/ We try to give it all meaning/ Glorify the grain of the wood/ Tell ourselves what’s beautiful and good.”

What’s wild, and entirely my fault, is that as much as I love the album, I have to choose my re-listens carefully because I’m immediately taken back to those late March walks when the world was falling apart—both the larger instance of it and my own personal version. I imagine that will fade with time, though who knows; perhaps the needle in this particular groove goes too deep and Saint Cloud will always be my long-haunted-pandemic-treks-to-Red-Hook album. There are worse appellations, I suppose.

View of Manhattan from Red Hook.

I want to say something profound about that experience one year ago. I even brought my laptop over to Wilmington, where I recently rented a docked sailboat; I thought the meaning would become clearer when I sought out water and listened to the album in full once again. But be careful about drawing parallels, about tracing the line between here and there, once and was. You can walk the maps you create for yourself, but that doesn’t mean they’ll reveal a point. I’ll leave it, instead, to Crutchfield: “If you burn slow, burning slow/ On your own roof, yell what you know/ Burning slow, burning slow.”

Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”

The pandemic has generated bizarre physiological responses to the stress we’ve all been experiencing, including a rise in clumsiness. It turns out, constant anxiety affects spatial awareness—our ability to be aware of our surroundings—leading to all manner of bumps, drops, and mundane mayhem.

One way to cure clumsiness? Through dance. Apparently, making your body move rhythmically helps reestablish your brain-body connection, anchoring you physically to the spaces you inhabit. If body fogginess is the byproduct of a chaotic year, then rhythmic movement is the antidote.

The brain-body connection has long fascinated me. I tend to live in my head. Add to that the rigorous mental work that grad school primed me to do, which I carry out still, and my brain often overwhelms its side of the partnership. I try to balance that out with physical activity, which itself feeds into a healthy brain: I workout, I walk as much as I can (doing my darnedest to exemplify the “excellent walker” barb Mrs. Hurst hurls at Lizzy in Pride & Prejudice), and I dance.

I love to dance so much that over a decade ago, I went so far as to become a Zumba instructor shortly before it exploded into a craze. By the time I stopped teaching there was a glut of instructors, but when I first moved to Baton Rouge, the local gyms needed more help to meet the growing demand, so I completed the requisite training and began leading my own class.

It started slow—Tuesdays and Thursdays at one of the less-attended YMCAs in the area—but word soon spread, and by the end of my tenure some three years later, I was teaching four classes each week at the number two branch, including leading the downtown Y’s weekly outdoor summer class and co-teaching the Varsity Theater’s nightclub Zumba.

Zumba offered readymade choreography for instructors, but I liked to blend those prepared offerings with some of my own fancy footwork, and one of my favorite “originals” became Rihanna’s 2010 hit “Rude Boy.” I must’ve played it at least once a week over the years I taught at the Y. And no one batted an eye. They shimmied with me, circling their hips, and feeling that magnanimous connection that exists between rhythm and physicality, when a beat practically catches you.

I don’t know why management let me play it. From the song’s outset, the lyrics don’t try to wink at anything—they scream it. “Come on rude boy boy, can you get it up?/Come on rude boy boy is you big enough?” Rihanna sings, as if she’s just kicked down the bedroom door and arched an eyebrow. The steel drum synths add to the song’s island vibe, which updates the dancehall tradition, before dipping down into a distorted bass thump practically designed for grinding.

I blasted it throughout the Y and my class participants loved it. “Take it take it, baby baby, take it take it, love me love me,” Rihanna sang. And they did.

And then all that dance faded into the background. I moved, started a new job, and forgot about the hours and hours I spent creating and learning new routines for salsa and merengue and cumbia and samba. Somewhere in that time, “Rude Boy” also became a thing of the past. Instead, I became smitten with Rihanna’s 2016 sex-on-a-stick album ANTI.

The brain codes rote activities differently than it does facts or autobiographical memory. Once you learn a task, the brain shifts that memory to another part where it’s less consciously executed. “Muscle memory,” therefore, is not about your body storing a memory of how to do a task, but about how once you learn a movement or other kind of repetitive activity, you can perform it almost without thought.

Recently, I was out for a walk when “Rude Boy” popped up on the 2010s playlist I had going. Suddenly, all of those past Zumba classes came rushing back. But, I wondered, could I remember my routine to the song? As it turns out, yes indeed.

My brain searched for the moves, their order. One right step unlocked the entire thing as if it hadn’t been nearly 10 years since I last danced it. From “Rude Boy,” I fell down the rabbit hole: all the salsas and merengues and reggaetons, including my favorite tracks, Celia Cruz’s “La Vida Es Un Carnaval,” T-Pain’s “Booty Wurk,” and my cool down song, “Yo No Se Manana,” which apparently I still know the lyrics to even though I don’t speak Spanish. I must have danced for an hour under the setting sun, feeling a sort of exquisiteness all the more precious for its rarity these days.

The rhythms lived in my body still, though they’d been dormant, buried under the stress of a year that left my brain-body connection heavily weighted toward the former. At a time when the battle we’ve faced has been waged in the body, I celebrated the exuberant movement that resides in mine, side-stepping and twirling outdoors, and feeling for a fleeting moment that animating spark they call joy. “Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up, babe.”

Philip Glass’ ‘Glassworks’

One Friday, in the early summer of 2018, I donned my prettiest dress, threw on a cream plum lipstick, and walked to the subway to grab the uptown train. After years away from the cultural nexus of the city, I was headed to Lincoln Center to attend New York City Ballet’s centennial celebration of the late choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Although NYCB is most wildly associated with George Balanchine, who co-founded the company and whose work it most regularly performs, Robbins holds a special place in the repertoire. He choreographed a significant number of ballets for the company, bringing his distinctly Broadway aesthetic to the art form and expanding what it meant to dance modern ballet.

That warm, overcast May evening, I had a ticket to a performance that would begin with Robbins’ beloved Dances at a Gathering and end with his metropolitan Glass Pieces, which is set to the music of Philip Glass—specifically pieces from his 1981 album Glassworks. Sitting in the cheap seats (discounted because you can see most of the stage), I was charmed by the former and wowed by the latter. I knew of Glass, but seeing the dancers embody his music transformed it in a material way. I remember being entranced.

Glassworks is a six-movement chamber work that integrates heavy pop influences—think synths meets classical. It marked Glass’ first album for CBS, which he hoped, he later explained, would reach new audiences. Where some listeners had found his previous music difficult, Glassworks was meant to shed all such barriers.

Robbins selected “Rubric” and “Facades” for the first two movements of Glass Pieces, and they each paint a spirited portrait of city life. On “Rubric,” a central saxophone syncs up with fluttering synths, creating a propulsive energy that mimics a busy sidewalk. On “Facades,” the pace grows more subdued but no less insistent; strings enter the frame and against that backdrop, two soprano saxophones spin a captivating duet.

“Rubric” and “Facades” still wield the power to transport me back to that evening—really to the city itself—and the bright spot of that evening. Less than a year later, in what seemed like kismet, I’d find myself working at New York City Ballet, having taken a managerial role on the company’s editorial team. It seemed—from the outside and even the outset—like a dream job. I thought I’d finally made it.

Part of “making it” in New York means not just what you do, but where you do it. Work and identity are fundamentally intertwined in that city in a way I’ve yet to experience elsewhere. People ask about your job by way of getting to know you, and that becomes your defining trait. Hobbies and interests and other things play a part, of course, but not nearly as much as your title and company, which makes sense: Those who move to New York don’t arrive looking for the status quo—a bland job they could do anywhere with much less overhead. They come to do something big. Your job is your identity in that city, so you better find an interesting one.

By day four at NYCB, I felt the thunder of my mistake—in part because several of my coworkers began regaling me with their horror stories. That fourth day also happened to be NYCB’s annual spring gala, an illustrious and exclusive affair. As I sat eating the most expensive meal of my life (comped because of my employee status) and watching celebrities rub elbows with dancers I’d long admired, the vision tarnished. What should have been the night to top them all—certainly that early Robbins performance—felt gnarled.

(Side note: once I wrapped up my gala duties at 2 a.m., I took a Lyft home, crying on the phone to my then-boyfriend about the alarming mess I seemed to be in. The driver overheard my side of the conversation, despite my attempts to be quiet, and offered a pep talk when he pulled up to my apartment. That exchange remains an equally meaningful and mortifying moment from my time in the city.)

I wouldn’t last long at NYCB; I’d be gone by summer’s end. What should have been a significant step forward for me, after years of struggle, was a significant misstep. But Glass Pieces somehow escaped that particular coloring. While I haven’t seen it performed since 2018, I hear in it not just the thrilling movement I saw explode on stage, but feel for a spell the transcendent energy of the city. It was dazzling, until it wasn’t.

Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”

Shortly before starting grade six, which Americans wrongly call “sixth grade,” I moved to my grandmother’s house in Toronto. My family shifted around a lot thanks to my dad’s work in TV news, but this year was different. My parents had recently separated, and my mother decided to return home. Having little say in the matter, my brother and I came with.

The relocation meant I needed to start a new school, which marked my third in as many years. It happened to be a Catholic institution because in Toronto there’s a wealth of public Catholic schools, though students have to be baptized in the faith to attend. Try going through that at age 11 when your parents are maybe divorcing and you’re living in your grandmother’s attic and you’re being asked to drink the lord’s blood but not really.

So, yeah, it wasn’t the best of times. And yet, a la Dickens, it was.

The school never held dances, so in some strange fit of rebellion, instead of doing more normal things like hang out and watch movies, my classmates and I—all 15 of us—spent our Saturdays gathering in each other’s basements. We’d play music, enjoy pizza and pop, and dance—sometimes to fast stuff but mostly to slow jams. There was Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose,” and Selena’s “Dreaming of You.” It was mid-90s power ballad heaven, and we slow danced our little non-chaperoned hearts out.

I came to enjoy these weird basement friend dances because they gave me a chance to get close to Mikey, the cute Jamaican-Canadian boy who was by far the most popular kid in grade six. We often chatted in class and played together during recess, but the dances were different. He’d ask me to slow dance, flaming the embers of my glowing crush as his arms encircled my waist. Even without school officials to supervise, boys chose between hands-on-hips (for friendlier partners) or arms-around-waist. It seemed to suggest something when Mikey went with the latter.

At school, certain classmates and especially my best friend Kalina—who’d moved from Poland a few years prior—used to tell me that Mikey liked me. At times, I thought so too. But in the looks department—and let’s not pretend that doesn’t matter at 11 or any age—it felt as though Julie, the bubbly, blue-eyed girl, would be more his speed. I’d recently gotten glasses and braces, and begun what would become a permanent lean into “bookish.”

At the last basement gathering of the school year, Mikey walked over and asked me to dance to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” a thunderous, seven-minute ballad about lost love. It’s like he knew I’d one day be a writer and would appreciate its auspiciousness.

That night, I thought Mikey’s ask signaled something more. Rumors had been swirling among our small class that he was going to ask me out before the end of the school year. And that night, I felt the crackle of possibility—of getting something you’ve wanted for a long time. In fact, I specifically remember making myself stare into the fire—I mean, it was a long song—so that I would form a memory of that dance with Mikey. “It’s all coming back to me now,” Celine sings and it’s like she knew what I was trying to do.

But just two days later, as I stood in the girl’s bathroom on the second floor at school, Julie walked in beaming. Mikey had asked her out. Kalina and I rushed downstairs and out to the back field to discuss this hideous turn of events. We didn’t get very far before Mikey found us and asked to talk, sheepishly explaining how he’d been torn between Julie and me for a while, but ultimately chose Julie because she was really fun.

It took an operatic song to match the soap opera of grade six that year, and Celine’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” did the trick, which is funny because it wasn’t even my favorite song of hers at the time. (Yes, all Canadians must swear to a favorite.) That’d be “Because You Loved Me.” Thank goodness we didn’t dance to that. It’s far less poetic. And terribly untrue.

In the end, it’s a good thing Mikey went with Julie. A few months later, my parents newly reunited, we left Toronto for my dad’s new job in south Florida.

What strikes me, even now, is the potency of this particular memory. I remember bits and pieces from my childhood; I often think that moving around so much—all of that change—affected what stuck. But this one, of our weird basement friend dances and especially of Mikey, has always lingered, and I credit that forced fire staring and Celine’s hyperbolic pining: “It was lost long ago/ But it’s all coming back to me now.”

Kacey Musgraves’ “It Is What It Is”

Sometimes I wonder if my subconscious senses endings before I do and uses lyrics to communicate as much.

Years ago, I wrote about mondegreens, or misheard lyrics, which got me thinking about the equally curious but much more poorly named phenomenon of earworms, or song fragments that churn endlessly—often unbidden—in the brain. On the surface they can be fantastically annoying, especially if you don’t enjoy the song your brain’s manic DJ choices—but underneath all that, could they be a message?

Earworms don’t seem to signify anything more than a recently heard song that’s become “stuck.” For me, these tend to be pop songs, which are repetitive by nature and constructed by masterminds, like Max Martin, who know how to create something not only catchy but catching. One listen to Taylor Swift’s latest single—just one!—and it’ll be with me for a week.

Beyond that, my brain adores language so much that I’ll often link a turn of phrase with a song. Here’s a not-very-interesting example of what I mean: During a scenic drive some years back, a friend said, “This sure is a winding road,” and immediately the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” started playing in my mind. In moments like that, it feels as though my brain is a musical and all the neurons simply waiting to fire and burst into song.

But sometimes the lyrical phrases that affix themselves to my internal monologue (or would it be soundtrack?) feel as though they’re hinting at a bigger picture.

Only a few months into my last long-term relationship, I found myself walking Clinton St. in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill—a path I preferred for its tree-lined escapism—and internally singing the last chorus line of Kacey Musgraves’ song “It Is What It Is.”

The track details a relationship of convenience, one in which neither party is particularly drawn to the other, but they’re both sort of there…so why not? “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored,” Musgraves sings with a kind of resigned indifference. “It is what it is/Till it ain’t/Anymore.”

The song serves as the culminating moment on Musgraves’ debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park. It’s a quiet track on an album full of reflective moments that don’t rest in more somber poses because Musgraves slips in winks and wisecracks to soften their respective blows. But “It Is What It Is” is vulnerable, raw.

For the longest time, the chorus would break the surface of my mind, and when it would I was tempted to draw parallels to my relationship at the time. We got along fabulously in ways that seemed to matter but don’t necessarily go the distance. Sometimes it felt like we were a convenience for one another, but that didn’t stop us from trying to force something more.

When that happened—when things started to get more serious—I’d feel something in my gut rear up like a wild stallion who’s caught sight of the bit, which is when the song’s lyrics would float up from the ether of my mind and stick in my head for a spell: “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored.”

Lately I got my record collection back and I added Musgrave’s debut to it, which prompted a more focused kind of listening than I’d previously given the song. Beyond the chorus and its one-two truth punch, the song paints a much larger picture. “We’re so much alike it ain’t a good thing. Too dumb to give up/Too stubborn to change,” Musgraves sings.

The chorus that would often crop up as I walked the sidewalks of New York and ponder the big ol’ “why” of it all was enough to signal a message. But hearing the song in its entirety, it felt as though my brain knew something I didn’t—that it had stored all those previous listens of “It Is What It Is” and kept sending smoke signals via the chorus, obliquely encouraging me to put the picture together.

I’m no neuroscientist or psychologist, but if anyone were to ever study the lyrics that ripple the waves of our minds, especially the why and when of it, I think they’d find that certain songs—at least the ones that tunnel into our being—sometimes act like a message in a bottle. If we’re willing enough to listen.