“What am I going to do?” We were driving from New York to New Hampshire to visit my nephew and his family when my sister, whose twin daughters were seniors in high school, burst out with that cry. She had just woken up to the realization that it had been decades since she’d focused on her own desires. Given the demands of childrearing and her career as a therapist, she had failed to cultivate any interests or even her friendships, and suddenly, a big gaping hole was cracking open in front of her. “Once they go off to college, I won’t have a life!”
As we talked, I offered suggestions. Maybe she’d like to sign up at a gym? No, her schedule and work location precluded that. Maybe she could join a choir? No, her voice wasn’t what it once was. Just tacking on some superficial activities to her life wouldn’t really address the problem, anyhow. I began to sense the profound emptiness that can hit when children leave the nest. My sister had thought she couldn’t wait to reclaim a focus on herself, but now she wasn’t even sure who that self was, separate from her roles as a mom, wife, and therapist.
The broken marriages of two of my female acquaintances came to mind as we drove that spring, both of whom had walked away from their homes. Neither had a bad thing to say about their husbands; instead each talked about not feeling her true potential, not feeling fulfilled. It seemed what they were missing was an elusive “something more.” Only a radical disruption in their lives gave them the space to find a way to address the absence and make the resulting hard decisions.
From these musings, my character Lily began to appear in my mind. Lily has a perfectly happy life that is profoundly disrupted by her son’s departure for college, the trigger that exposes a sinkhole in her heart. I suspect this occurs for many women, whom society rewards for being selfless. Yet all humans need access to transcendence, in whatever form: art or beauty or nature or spirituality. What happens to dreams deferred, to the parts of ourselves that are untended and lay dormant? Play for Me became, in a way, a kind of cautionary tale about what can happen if you lose your voice through too great a focus on the needs and demands of others.
But, it was an aspect of my own life that I mined in working through the story’s conflict and complications. At the point in time when my sister was voicing her worries, my life had taken an unexpected and wonderful turn. In midlife, I had discovered a passion for the classical guitar, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became with all forms of guitar music. I’d always felt a strong connection to music, but it lay dormant for many years; rediscovering it later in life made this sudden immersion all the more powerful. This new passion led to an opportunity to write about music, and I studied all of it: musicians’ lives, careers, and creative processes. Playing and writing became synergistic for me. This new world was heady and exciting; I was like a woman drunk or possessed.
Proust has called music “a dangerous intoxication,” an idea that guided my writing of Play for Me and the entwined themes of lost identity and music. I gave Lily an irresistible passion along with its risks, and waited to see what she would make of it all and how her life would change. Writing Lily’s story allowed me to explore what makes music so powerful—what is it about music that moves us so? Neuroscientists have found evidence of music’s powerful effect: Brain imaging has shown that favorite songs stimulate the brain’s pleasure circuit, releasing dopamine, serotonin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good, even blissful. I don’t believe this effect is only neuronal, and that we simply attach philosophical and psychological meanings to these intense feelings. Still, the research data are an intriguing confirmation of the power that music holds. Music promotes sharing; it transcends personal and cultural barriers, bringing people together. Think of how children respond to music with enormous freedom: twirling, dancing, and singing out loud with abandon. Clearly music taps into and releases carefully guarded emotions and can be for us whatever we need it to be.
Music is often compared with a stream, in the way it ebbs and flows. Just as water trapped underground can eventually erupt, so too does the music serve as a metaphor in Play for Me, connecting Lily to a more authentic, earlier self, a powerful catalyst for change. And for me, music made the writing flow.
Photo by Corey Blaz