Friday, November 21, 2014

10 Songs

I’ve written before that as illness consumes your life and your body, it often feels as if your identity and your worldview is violently washed away. There are positive and negative implications of this. The negatives are obvious. I read stories of Spoonies who have lost their careers, their spouses, their financial security, their friends, their passions, and even some who became homeless. It’s difficult not to feel like your sense of self is under assault. 

Yet, battling illness and disability provides gifts as well. It becomes an opportunity to discover a truer self, one that has faced the Gorgon and survived. You’ll never know who you really are until your worst nightmare becomes reality. You’re given an opportunity to create meaningful new relationships and to strengthen existing ones.

Illness also makes you cling tighter to your passions. Your passions can link all the many versions of yourself through the years and serve as a reminder of your gifts and contributions to the world. They can provide some certainty and a tangible source of equanimity and strength to weather the chaos of illness. I read stories of Spoonies who are artists, cooks, crafters, etc. Illness forces you to slow down, and this can be opportunity to delve into whatever passion you have. 

A few years ago, my husband gave me a challenge: create a mix cd of your 10 most favorite songs. He created his right away, but I’ve been thinking about mine for years now. I’m a musician and songwriter, and music is probably more important to me than almost anything else. I finally finished my list and it’s been a means to celebrate life experiences, since getting ill and before. 

Tori Amos, “Liquid Diamonds”
The album this song is from is almost 20 years old at this point, but my reverence to this song has never subsided. Like most Tori Amos fans, I’m obsessed with her music. Her catalog includes hundreds of songs and I know them all. She is the reason I became a musician. This song has a quiet ferocity that pulls me in, under the waves of all the water imagery. It's the jazziest song she's ever done. I've seen her live a few times and was supposed to see her a few months ago. I was too ill to make it but my best friend went, and I got to live it through her. 

Nat ‘King’ Cole, “There is No Greater Love”
Well, I owe my desire to become a musician to this guy too. I like to wrap myself in his velvet voice. He has taught me everything I know about how to play standards and improvising. Not many know he was also a brilliant pianist and organist, though he was marketed as a vocalist. He’s been one of my favorite artists even before I was a teenager. This is my favorite song off my favorite Nat Cole record.

Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven” BBC Sessions
I’m serious about Led Zeppelin. I mean really serious. They aren’t my favorite band; they are my religion. Stairway is not my favorite Zeppelin song but this version is just perfection. Page’s solo is transcendent. My husband introduced me to them, and our wedding ceremony was all Zeppelin. My husband also loves them and whenever we travel, especially when would go hiking, we would listen to Zeppelin. There are so many great memories that unfurl when I listen to their music.

Miles Davis, “All Blues”
I have so much admiration for Miles Davis. He was the ultimate innovator and so many genres of music owe him a huge debt, not just jazz. I have every note of his album Kind of Blue memorized, especially this one. I listened to his music often when I was studying in my undergrad and in grad school. I especially love Bill Evans' solo in this one.

Jeff Buckley, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”
I like artists with prodigal talent who treat any form and genre of music as material to claim and transform. Buckley was a brilliant songwriter, musician, and a fantastic cover artist. I’ve been listening to this song for 20 years, and I can play it as well. I’ve performed it a few times, but no one can really match Buckley’s vocal range. 

Nina Simone “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”
Nina Simone could play anything. Like Buckley, she claimed any genre of music and blended them seamlessly. This song is like lightening on my spine. She was primarily a classical musician, but she melded folk, jazz, blues, classical so well. One of my favorite albums is her version of folk songs from all over the world. She could do anything. I got to present a paper on Simone at an academic conference, and I performed her song "Four Women" at a production of The Vagina Monologues. Her music has been an integral part of my life for so long. 

Dave Matthews “One Sweet World”
Before my husband and I got together, we used to talk to each other online. A mutual friend connected us. We would talk on ICQ, and if you weren’t using the internet in 2000, you probably won’t know what that is. It’s proto-social networking. It was so long ago, that we would discuss what music we were downloading on Napster. At this point, you could say we grew up during the Stone Ages of the internet. He sent me this song one night. I’m a sucker for good songwriting and Dave Matthews can write a song. His band masquerades as a pop group, but they blend jazz and world music in as well. This is a love song to mother earth. It’s my husband’s favorite DMB song too. 

Kate Bush, “Running Up that Hill”
There are many reasons why I love this song that include the complex questions it asks about gender and that despite the dated synths and drum machines, it still sounds fresh over 30 years later. I bought Hounds of Love on vinyl when I first got a record player and have been listening to it for almost 20 years. It might be the most-played vinyl record I own. I don't know what planet Kate Bush is from, but I want to go to there.

Norah Jones, “Something is Calling You”
This was recorded before her blockbuster first album, and I think her earlier recordings are better than that album. I love this little song. Like Simone and Buckley, she has knack for seamlessly blending many genres of music. I'm not sure everyone has figured out she is really a country artist more than anything else. When my parents had a boat, we would fish all day and I’d play a Norah Jones mix cd on the radio. This song is a lazy summer day, fishing and hanging out with my parents and husband. Pure bliss.

Sting “Why Should I Cry for You” Live in Berlin
Like I said, I’m a sucker for good songwriting. I’m not a very good hipster when I love music that is so mainstream, but I have always loved Sting’s intellectual pop songwriting and his musicality. This song has gotten me through the hardest times this year. I would listen to it on repeat and when I was struggling to drive to work and when I was sitting in my yard thinking about life, accepting the difficult cards I had been handed.  He wrote it for his father, and his story about him moves me to tears.

Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”
I don’t like rules so there’s one more. When my sister and I were young, my father would take us to the Sacramento Delta to cruise around on his friend’s boat. Apparently, I have a lot of boat-related memories. When I think of those memories, Sam Cooke is always playing. I really believe Sam Cooke's voice has healing powers.This song has also gotten me through the difficult times this year. I know a change is gonna come.

This was a self-indulgent exercise but a good, positive one. I recommend this to anyone: create a list for yourself of whatever your passion is: movies, music, tv shows, sports, books, life memories, anything. For the Spoonies out there, I think it's useful to do positive exercises like this to draw ourselves out of the fog of illness. It will remind you of who you are, what matters most to you, and let you reminisce and celebrate your life.  


  1. This passage resonates with me, 'Illness forces you to slow down, and this can be opportunity to delve into whatever passion you have." I've been coming to terms with this and am finally allowing music to work it's magical healing powers. I don't know why I always fight it. I'm happy you finally made your top 10 list. I'm gonna work on mine now!

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