The transformative power of music is an old story; it has been with us from the beginning, even before we made our mark on this earth, or so I believe. It has the capacity to expand or distill our experiences as well as provoke us to think, feel, respond. The years following my heart event in the woods–which I sometimes think of as “my heart affair”, a communal experience with Mother Nature, God, and my mortality–music became a light that illuminated the passages to more health and deeper well-being.
Classical music had been a major focus in my life, perhaps an actual life force; it raised me as surely as my well-intentioned parents did. That was just the beginning. I cast an ever-widening net and was introduced to folk and bluegrass, jazz and blues, Motown and world music, with a little pop thrown in. It isn’t surprising, then, that music would be a trustworthy companion as I sought wholeness and health. I had three years of stepping out of the job market, so I often set up camp with the radio and a large collection of CDs. The orderly elegance of classical music was more than a balm to mind and spirit; it raised philosophical questions about human history, the ability to triumph over adversity and the nature of genius. But mainly, concertos made me happy; opera roused me; elegies swept over me like a diaphanous dream. Jazz ran a very close second and I couldn’t get enough of Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Eliane Elias, Karryn Allyson, Kurt Elling, Marian McPartland, Diane Reeves…
But what reached me most came from my Irish heritage, Celtic music, and a second and related form, flamenco. I had always loved this music, but after the matter of the heart affair, it loved me back harder.
How to describe what happened when those sounds erupted and careened out of the old Magnaplanar speakers in the living room? “Swoon” might be an apt word, but I was too busy waiting in the middle of the floor, feeling the rhythm in my feet and legs, sensing the movement from one measure to the next as it travelled up my torso and into my spine where skin tingled with energy. By the time it reached my brain, in mere seconds, I was ignited by all that mattered: life.
I started to dance, arms raised with hands shaping the air or just loose and quiet at my sides, feet soft, then loud, tapping and then sweeping across the floor. I could feel my heart gather its strength from the complicated beats that wove themselves around and within me. It was talking to me with a bright sound, making itself known by the beauty of its pumping, keeping me in sync with the music, and vice versa. The voices from the stereo entwined with my own, the musicians called out to me and my heart answered. It answered as though its own being, given over to flights of fancy and sidesteps of glee, weeping tears that stayed pure in the blood and releasing joy that made pain lustrous in hollows of loss. It was a heart that understood the music and the music understood it in return. There was something deeply respectful about the exchange even as it felt a little dangerous: my heart rate increased and sometimes protested as sweat sprang at my chest and forehead–but it kept on pounding.
It was duende, the spark of life, melancholy and ecstasy that issued from the guitars and vibrant voices, the complex clapping of hands and relentless dancing feet. It, too, was the ancient magic of Gaelic words falling over me like a veil, the mystery of life and death that played upon the uillean pipes and whistles, the beating of the bodhran as must have been done ’round a fire burning into the night long ago. I could hear my ancestors singing. I could feel the thrumming of their feet on earth. I stepped forward and raised my hands once more.
So it was that music once more came to my rescue, informed and disciplined me. It gifted me with solace and happiness. It made me bold when I felt like retreating. Notes and beats that stirred the air provided me release when there were not words enough. The sound of voices travelling across cultures and time found me; I felt right at home as I forged a passage to a new life, feet firm on the ground.