Music and Talking to Myself

A counselor once told me that A + B = C, where A is what happens, B is what you tell yourself, and C is your emotion(s). From C comes D, which is your action(s)/response. This is a gross oversimplification, of course. Physiology, for example, plays a role (sometimes a large role) in this process. But for most people most of the time, the physiological (and other) effects are slight.

You can’t much affect A. A is what happens to you, the situations you find yourself in. Sure, you chose to take this flight or walk into that office, but you didn’t choose the thunderstorm at 5 o’clock or the traffic accident on your route home or your aunt passing away.

A lot of people, looking at their emotions, their C, think that C is nearly equal to A, so they repeat A‘s that lead to C‘s they like and avoid A‘s that lead to C‘s they don’t like. They like laughing with this person, so they go to their office to chat more often. They don’t like feeling embarrassed running to their car in the rain, so they make sure they keep an umbrella at work.

Of course, when you view A=C, or A being almost equal to C, people can resort to significant changes to try to eliminate C‘s they don’t like. For instance, they don’t like feeling anxious, so they try not to fly. They don’t like grieving and feeling helpless, so they distance themselves from elderly family members.

Sometimes people don’t mind the C‘s, but they loathe the resulting D‘s. For example, they don’t like feeling angry in the car because it prompted them to curse in front of their kids. They decide to change the A by taking a longer, slower, but less-busy way to and from work to try to avoid the C that led to the bad D.

But, there is also the B. Studies show that we can talk to ourselves an average of 1300 words a minute. That’s a lot of talking. You talk to yourself more than anyone else in your life does. (No, don’t make a crack about your spouse or sister or whatever. It’s not the same.) You talk to you a lot, so it stands to reason that it matters what you’re saying. If it makes you feel better to think of your B as being your thought process, that also works.

Which leads me to music. Music, studies show, can literally change your brain waves. We talk about not liking what a song says, but it’s so peppy or interesting that you find yourself listening and even humming along. If you’re like me, song lyrics and musical phrases regularly get “stuck”, repeating again and again in your mind. And those repetitions can easily come up when I’m talking to myself. Even just singing along to the songs stuck in my head is me repeating those words and messages to myself.

My great-aunt passed away at the end of 2014. After weeks in the hospital recovering from a broken hip, she’d been moved to an outpatient rehabilitation center and, it seems, a blood clot moved to her lungs and she died between three and five in the morning. My cousin called to tell me a few hours later, while I was scraping the ice off the windshield of my idling car.

I didn’t know what to do. So, after a minute or two, I started driving to work. I called and told my parents. And, about two miles from my house, I began to cry. While yielding at a busy intersection, my brain drew up the lyrics to David Crowder’s “All This Glory”. Not all of it, just these lines:

In the middle of the night,
all this light.
In the middle of the night,
after all this quiet.
Jesus, God with us.

I couldn’t remember any more. I couldn’t focus to try. I didn’t know what to say to myself about what had happened. I wanted to extrapolate, find meaning. So as I imagined my aunt lying in the bed in her darkened, borrowed room, exactly as I had left her mere hours before, my brain called up the lyrics to a song I hadn’t heard lately but I had listened to and sung often.

Singing these lines to myself, I realized that my great-aunt had passed through the veil of this life and into the very presence of God.

In the middle of the night,
all this light.
In the middle of the night,
after all this quiet.
Jesus, God with us.

And these words comforted me. That’s a good C.

The lyrics gave me perspective, which was a good D.

The A was bad, and I know how drastically I’m oversimplifying, but a helpful B led to a helpful C. Notice I didn’t say a “good” or “positive” B, because grief needs to be experienced but there is little good or positive about it. It’s pain. Pain like a current. And just when you feel you’ve got your footing, or you can handle this, it rushes with new fury.

Here’s the crux. Deciding what songs I should listen to matters. I’m putting language, messages into my brain and my brain only puts out what I put into it. That’s another gem from counseling: I put in, I get out.

A happens. (I often can’t control A.)
I think B. (I can learn to control B.)
I get C.
Based on C and my moral principles, I do D.

This doesn’t mean that I’m only going to listen to contemporary Christian music. (Have you heard some the nonsense in that category?) I’m not going to categorically cut out anything, either. But I am going to acknowledge that Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven” isn’t what I want to be repeating to myself and Christina Perri’s “I Believe” probably is.

I don’t want Bieber’s “Love Yourself” or Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” influencing my B thought processes, but I am good with “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles and Lukas Graham’s “Seven Years.”

“Photograph” by Ed Sheeran is a yes but his “Don’t” is a no.

And let’s not leave the Christians out: I don’t want “Above All” by Michael W. Smith and “God’s Great Dance Floor” by Chris Tomlin coming in or out of my head, but “Run Forward” by Audrey Assad and “Instrument” by Matt Maher are a-okay by me.

These are, of course, very personal choices. But they are choices, and I’m owning mine.

“Don’t Ever Change”

After telling my neighbor that we had to put my roommate’s dog to sleep, and after he asked me how much that cost, and after I steered the conversation back to the more suitable subject cancerous masses, I turned to leave. I was eight feet away, walking in wedges through the hilly, grassy, slightly damp front yard when my neighbor called after me, “Hey. Don’t ever change, Katie. I like you just the way you are.”

I’ll call this neighbor “The Professional.” He is a professional, as he told me the first time I met him, and as he told my roommate Morgan the first time he met her, and as he told our neighbors when they moved in across the street. The Professional’s wife, he made certain to point out, is also a professional (though I don’t believe she works). But they are both professionals.

On the surface, The Professional’s parting words seem nice. He likes me the way I am, and wants me to know that. He’s a bit of a picky (and prickly) person, so I understand that from his perspective, he was giving me a compliment. He was trying to make me feel good. He did the opposite. Let’s break down his message.

The Professional has determined that the version of me which he sees (definitely a limited view, as we aren’t close and I don’t particularly like him) is the best possible version of me. At 27, I can’t grow or change or learn in any way that would better who I am or improve my happiness or life satisfaction; I’ve peaked.

The Professional claims to be a Christian, as do I. The churchy way of saying “make me a better person” is “make me more like Christ.” To the very churchy, this process is known as sanctification and is an ongoing, lifelong process. At best, my neighbor’s admonition to never change shows a gross lack of imagination. At worst, he’s insulting me (or possibly committing heresy) by saying I’m the most like Christ now that I will ever be.

Oh, he doesn’t see it that way. Of course not! He means this to be a compliment. So did all the people who wrote similar platitudes in my yearbooks. The Professional probably isn’t really thinking about what he’s saying. But his message also implies that his opinion is worth so much, I shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize it (which I won’t unpack here, but Urgh).

Plenty of people over the years have told me “don’t ever change” or “stay sweet”. I probably even wrote it in some yearbooks myself, submitting to the crowd even while I felt uncomfortable doing so.

Which is why I don’t plan to go to my ten-year high school reunion next year.

In the gel pen scribbles of my yearbooks, I see people who meant well but had no idea I didn’t like many of them. They genuinely thought the version they saw of me at 15 and 17 was the best person I could be. They applauded my sweetness and meekness, even though I didn’t feel like I was either. (There isn’t anything wrong with sweetness, that premier Southern virtue. But it isn’t all I am. Nor is meekness a problem, extolled even by Jesus in Matthew 5:5. I just wasn’t the least bit meek on the inside; I was screaming.)

I am such a happier, more confident person now. And I don’t know that most of the people I went to school with would see these changes as positive. I don’t want to watch a former schoolmate’s face crumble into mere politeness when they discover a stranger behind my nametag. Nor do I want their expectations and disappointments to make me feel small again, so painfully uncomfortable, like I once did each day in their company. I don’t want to feel like I am the same person I was then, or that I should be.

When I made my way inside after waving off The Professional’s words, wedge heels damp but ankles untwisted, I shucked my bags off my arms and sat down at the dining table by my roommate. Morgan was being an excellent adult and budgeting for the month, but stopped to listen to me complain about the conversation. I felt her sympathy as she pointed out The Professional’s well-intended ignorance. Most important, she served as a touchstone by treating me no differently than she had that morning. No matter what anyone else says about or believes of me, she knows and values who I am.

I’m not married. I don’t have a husband I could take with me to a high school reunion, someone who would remind me as we drove away that I’m not less than I was in high school; I’m more. And I know myself. I know I would feel that way. Even if I were married, I don’t think it’d be a good idea for me to go to this reunion.

So the weekend of the reunion, I’ll find something fun to do and will pray for each person I knew in high school who treated me kindly. And I’ll also pray for those who I didn’t like in high school, who didn’t listen and who bullied. I’m so much better, so much happier than I was 10 years ago. My goal is to keep moving that direction, no matter what my neighbors say.

To Almost 25-year-old Me

I don’t have too many years on you, but it’s about to be one year more. Emily (yes, that new friend of yours Emily) and I went to see a musical at the Fox this week and she shared how unhappy she’s been, how hard the transition has been for her from college to working life. The same month I turn 28, she’ll turn 25, just like you will.

First, let’s put some words to what you’re going through.

Your life is a house and the house is on fire.

You didn’t really notice until now, ignoring the hot door handles (I just won’t go in there right now) and the watery eyes (I’m just tired) and the heat (Adulting is hard). But the smoke inhalation is catching up with you and it’s so much easier to breathe when you’re crawling, not walking, from room to room. And, no, that’s not normal.

Your life is a house and the house is on fire.

You’re inside. This is your life. It’s been on fire for a while and you don’t really know how long this has been going on. Heck, maybe it’s always been on fire but your parents and your brother and your plans and your childhood expectations have been running the hoses all this time. But that’s stopped. Your parents don’t live with you anymore and, even if you were to move back, you’d find that your house is still on fire.

So what to do? Abandon the house? This works great for some people. They grab a few items and walk away like a hero in an action movie, carrying a rucksack of photos or a pillowcase of books or a wheelbarrow of porcelain figurines and houseplants. Maybe they are carrying a child wrapped in a blanket that will forever smell of smoke. As the roof catches and the ribs of the front rooms become visible and the entire grey maw collapses in on the insatiable flames, these people are walking steadily up the street, and they don’t know where they’ll end up, but they aren’t looking back. They’ll build a new house somewhere, a new life, and that’s okay.

That’s also not really your style, but who am I to tell you what to do?

So your life is a house and the house is on fire, but maybe the fire’s mostly in the kitchen. Maybe you can take a sledge hammer and a lot of baking soda and save the rest of the house. You will absolutely need a new kitchen, probably a new roof and half of your living room, too, but you can more or less rebuild it the way you want it. You can improve things: a new layout and a sunnier paint color and maybe a bigger porch while you’re at it. But there’s fire first. You’ll find fire in rooms you didn’t know had been touched, maybe didn’t even know existed.

Here’s the really important bit: no matter how many industrial fans you bring in and no matter how many consecutive days you open the windows to the restorative powers of the breeze, your house will probably always smell faintly of smoke. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Most people’s do. However, if you can’t stomach that, grab a pillowcase and a wheelbarrow and put on your tennis shoes.

But remember: you were in that fire. You’ll smell the smoke again—for years—on your shirt, between the binding and the pages, on the porcelain unicorn (even though you know that shouldn’t be possible). You’ll smell it in your hair. It’s not really things you’re smelling, it’s you. You were there. You are there right now.

Your life is a house and the house is on fire. And you don’t have to do anything. You can keep crawling around on the floor, wiping soot from your face, and coughing into damp washcloths. You can pretend nothing is wrong. But the fire will consume you. And if you survive it, you’ll be left without a house, without an armful of books and a porcelain unicorn balanced on top. Even if you see the destruction coming, sitting in the least hot corner of your bedroom with your knees pulled to your chest, watching the flames creep closer to you. Even if you wait to break out the window until the last moment. If you do nothing, you’ll be left with nothing.

But I know you. I know you are surprised and maybe crying, but this is making sense, isn’t it? As much as it did the first time Kayla used this metaphor in front of me. We talked about it a little, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I know you are practical, proud to be sensible and strong, and you are. I know sitting in the corner isn’t your style, as least not for long.

A couple of caveats, dear past me:

    1. Whether you decide to fight for your house or give it up, you won’t be able to move into a fully furnished two bedroom condo with a balcony tomorrow. It takes time to build, to populate, to choose. Even falling into a life that feels surprisingly full isn’t actually a full life. A week in Key West when you’re my age will tempt you to feel like it is. (Don’t go looking for that week. Let it come to you.) But there are massive holes. It’d take so long to get to Kayla, to your parents, to your brother. Zika is coming north (don’t ask, it’ll also come without any help from you). Where would you go to church? It’s an expensive place to live and the workers at Judy Bloom’s bookstore are volunteers. Take the vacation, but don’t believe the lies of it. Or of any vacation.
    2. The fire department exists for a reason. Call in help. Call in professionals. If you want to fight and rebuild what can’t be saved, call the people you trust not to stand around smirking and not to nick your accent pillows. Hand out buckets and send them to the creek for water. Call in professionals who can bring in the big hoses and the axes and the fresh muscles and the experienced advice.

    Don’t be embarrassed if your neighbors see the fire truck in the driveway. That truck is going to help you save your life. And some of the people who see will come to help, to check if you’re okay, to offer a casserole or a hug. Maybe you’ll make a really good friend out of it. Maybe someone you know now will tell you about the time her house was on fire, and then you’ll have a great friend.

    If you decide to give up this house, these people can help you pack, or they can let you sleep a few nights on their couch. They can help you lay a good foundation on higher ground. They might be able to donate an extra box of tiles or a pile of lumber or their son’s barely used armchair and ottoman.

    Call in professionals when building, too. Who wants to do their own brickwork? Who’s any good at brickwork? (Remember, I’ve seen you ice a cake.) You aren’t being weak; you’re being wise.

My life is a house and right now I smell smoke. Maybe it’s in my hair and maybe it’s on this bedspread. Maybe it’s from grey-black clouds above my head and maybe it’s from a heap in front of me. I won’t tell you what I chose, what colors are on the wall or even if I have walls, but you know Kayla and Emily and musicals and our parents and our brother and Key West are here, so maybe you have an idea.

Happy Early Birthday, almost 25-year-old Katie. Next summer will suck. Call all your grandparents. Invest in Apple. Hug those babies. Write, write, write.

You’ll survive. Promise.

Almost 28-year-old Katie