I'm Alive

I'm Alive

There's a song in my soul.

Sometimes it's quiet, but there's always a song.


Writing and playing music has been an emotional buoy for me since high school. Back then it was typical angsty teen stuff, strummed out angrily on an old guitar I inherited from my sister, makeshift songs with obtuse lyrics sung into a tape recorder.

In college, I played the accordion with a merry band of friends. We called ourselves Ice Cream Socialists, and our songs were exactly what you'd expect from a band with that name — zany, frenetic, weirdly heartfelt. We met in a whirlwind, a bunch of 18-year-olds thrust into the wonderland of a music town — Athens, Georgia. Like a rocket, we glowed and burned, fast. Maybe a little too fast. I loved our time together. It was a thrill and a rush to be in front of the small crowds that came to see us play. For forty minutes on a Saturday night, you were twisted up in a vibrating energy, something special, unique and unrepeatable.

Ice Cream Socialists at the 40 Watt Club, Athens, Georgia. February 21, 2008. Photo by Mike White.

Ice Cream Socialists at the 40 Watt Club, Athens, Georgia. February 21, 2008. Photo by Mike White.

After our last time on stage together, I packed my accordion in its case, descended back to bar-level, and burst into tears — maybe a little tequila-fueled but hot, real, and bereft nonetheless — knowing it was the last time we'd all be together, following the same beat, singing the same songs.

When I experienced my first broken heart, I wove it into an album of songs that I recorded on a laptop in my college bedroom. I poured out all the pain and sadness and confusion into melody. It helped me heal, to stitch up that wound a little. I loved again.

2009. Art school days.

2009. Art school days.

When I was out of school, I wrote about the future, about uncertainty. About learning to dive from a dock on a lake. About the mystery of San Francisco. Potential. Desire. Bits of sound and silence that few have heard, pine tree tall.

After my mom died, I wrote about her. I wrote about her absence. About the prairie and the sea and Antarctica. About rain, about freight trains, about blood and bones and stones and blue.

But it was all about her. I put it into a box marked "Julie's Girl" so that it wouldn't have to live inside my heart anymore because the weight of it was too much. It was a relief to get it out and place it somewhere safe, somewhere I can soak in it when I feel blue, but tuck away when it's time to go. Sometimes I hum the melodies to myself. I find comfort in them. I hope others do too.

Somewhere just north of the Antarctic Circle, nearly midnight on New Year's Eve. December 31, 2013.

Somewhere just north of the Antarctic Circle, nearly midnight on New Year's Eve. December 31, 2013.

Recording at home, January 2017.

Recording at home, January 2017.

I'm 31 and have a lot going on. I have a husband and two cats who require doting. I work full time. I like to write, I like to sew, I like to work on my home, I like to whisper to my plants. I create art. I spend time in my studio futzing around in an attempt to make the ideal lamp. Various organizations demand a slice of my time and attention. And music, of course. I want to do all these things but feel they jockey each other for position in my focus.

The last time I talked to my therapist, I lamented that I stretch myself thin across so many interests, and she said, "Well isn't that what being an adult is about? Learning you must prioritize your interests within the limits of your time?"

She's right of course, but I fear the unspoken imperative: that I must choose.

When I was growing up I cycled through so many different activities and hobbies, at times practicing karate, horseback riding, soccer, girl scouts, chess club, viola, guitar, piano, accordion, pedal steel. Singing. My mom criticized me for never sticking with anything. I dreaded that she was right, that I'm a quitter. I do all these things, then at some point I stop doing them.

In life, my mother was my greatest champion and supporter. If I showed interest in something, she'd be all over it. It's how we ended up hauling a pearlized red accordion back from our two week vacation visiting family in Canada in the summer of 2003 — purchased from a Polish woman she found in the classifieds section of the Calgary Sun after I'd expressed my desire to learn to play. 

So I am sure I put her through plenty of frustration when I'd move on to the next hobby.

The summer before she died, when I told her I was going to start boxing, she warily reminded me that I've always been the kind of person who quit things. I wanted to prove her wrong though — and I did, for a while. Until I quit, a year later. At least she wasn't around to see that ending.

My mother left me with a legacy of love but also this damn quitter complex. 

But what if she was wrong? What if I'm not a Quitter? What if I'm just a Tryer?

It's a novel way to reframe something I've chalked up to a character flaw for my entire life. It's made me reevaluate how I can spend my time in ways that allow me to address all my interests without feeling as though my time is minced into meaningless pieces. I'm recognizing that maybe I just cycle through my hobbies rather than quitting them. Maybe I need a Hobby of the Month model, where I can devote entire stretches of time to one thing, to give it attention and uninterrupted thought, then progress to the next on the list.

I can see this playing out already, where I spend weeks at a time fussing over paint colors and rearranging furniture at home, then live with it happily for months, until the next time something drives me to change a light fixture or install new faucets or hang a set of shelves. In the meantime, I'm off on another tangent, maybe on to sewing, or to designing a cat tree, or obsessing over clothes.

I guess I've lived long enough now to know they all come back around. Just because I haven't touched it in a while doesn't mean I won't ever again.

Santa Rosa Beach, August 2018.

Santa Rosa Beach, August 2018.

Lately, I've wondered, do I still have music in me? Here and there a song will come, but they are few and far between.

It's no secret that making music is a skill like anything — if you don't do it for a long time, your muscles need to relearn how to move, how to flit around notes in a pleasing way. I've been desperate to know whether I still have the capacity for it, or if it's been neglected for too long now.

In an effort to give myself the time and space to work this out, last week, I took off work and traveled alone down to my family's shared condo on the gulf coast of Florida. I wanted to see if I still had music inside me. I hoped to find my voice again after a long stretch of wondering if it still worked.

The music wasn't waiting for me, not like a good dog, pawing at the door upon my arrival. I had to look for it.

Instead it was a shy cat, one you have to coax out of hiding with a little tuna in a dish. Soft words.

It took time to find my voice. To pick out a string of notes on the keyboard that didn't sound like shit.

But eventually, it came.

It didn't pour out like it does when you've been doing it for a while, when it's all fluid and muscle memory. But it was still there, it was alive, and that was enough for me.