Welcome to the monthly series where I write about the ideas and inspiration behind the Spotify playlists I release on the first of every month. There tends to be a personal story behind each of these, so I’ve committed to some friends, readers and myself to use this space to practice leaving my ego behind to make room for vulnerability. It’s scary being so forthcoming on the Internet, where strangers, friends and coworkers alike all reside, but I keep coming back time after time because of the responses I get from people saying thank you for writing about things that typically aren’t talked about openly. Thank YOU all for letting me open up and get real through good times and bad, time after time. On we go.
As I was working on February’s playlist in January, things all seemed to come crashing down once again.
What I hoped would be a month of new beginnings presented itself as a month of unforeseen endings. If you’re able, bear with me through this story; it’s longer than the average. But at the end of it, I hope you’ll feel a closer connection to this music, to me, and to the theme of finding change and turning points when they’re least expected.
In early January, I started feeling better for the first time since I started feeling strangely unwell in August 2018 (more on that here). After a few consecutive days of feeling like myself again, I thought perhaps I’d turned a corner.
I was scheduled for more testing on January 18th and was hopeful that the results would show a full recovery; on I’d go with my life. After two nights of forced sleep deprivation, I awoke sleepily that morning. As I was getting ready to rush out the door, I turned and saw my cat, Mo, suddenly collapse and start wailing. What was happening? One minute ago he was totally himself. Something was clearly wrong, but I had no idea what to do. In a panic, I picked up my phone and called the vet.
As his sole owner, I can’t quite describe the loneliness or fear I felt in that moment. If I tried to rush him to help, I wasn’t sure I’d get there in time. And what was I to do about my own appointment, which had to be scheduled weeks in advice? How selfish of me, I thought. How could I prioritize myself when my cat might be dying right in front of me? In that moment, luck was on my side. He was able to get up, so the vet told me to go to my own appointment and bring him in afterwards.
Before I go on, I should admit that I’ve always been guarded about my love for my cat. I’ve been afraid of the stigma that comes with that. Particularly as a single woman, I’ve felt a need to tell people that I’m not a cat person. Truthfully, I wasn’t. I got him shortly after graduating from college, when I was living by myself for the first time and wanted some company in my apartment. I’m from a family of 7, so solitude wasn’t something I was used to. Realizing that I wasn’t ready for a dog and couldn’t keep a fish alive for the life of me, I ended up with a cat.
As luck would have it, I ended up with the sweetest cat I’ve ever known. I can’t tell you how many people have told me over the years that they don’t like cats, but they truly loved Mo. I adored him. My family adored him. My dad, who wasn’t a fan of pets after our childhood cat peed in his briefcase, adored him. Somewhere out there I have a picture of the two of them together on my couch, dad smiling, Mo right at his side.
Not long after I took that picture, my dad died. And starting that day, my life would forever have an invisible “before” and “after” divide drawn into it. Memories from before, memories from after. Friends from before, and friends from after. A version of myself from before, and a different one from after. But there are some friends in life who know you well enough to make you forget that the line exists some days. Silly as it sounds, my cat was one of those. He kept me company as I navigated the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and [a longing for] acceptance (which I’m still working on). Day after day, year after year, there he was at my side, not casting one bit of judgment through the ups and the downs. He made me smile when I didn’t think it was possible.
It shook me up a good bit when Mo got pretty sick a few months ago. He fought through a hernia reconstruction surgery, severe allergies, anemia, and more, but the latest reports from the vets came back incredibly positive. They were amazed at his recovery. Needless to say, I never expected what I saw that morning that he collapsed. I brought him in after my appointment, and I’ll spare you the minute details of the next 30 hours, but what I’ll say is this: they were miserable. They managed to go by incredibly slowly and also heartbreakingly fast. After visits with multiple doctors and another sleepless night, he was diagnosed with multiple new and life-threatening conditions. Next thing I knew, there I was, sitting in a room with the doctor, crying uncontrollably, doing everything I could to convince myself that their recommendation to put him down was the right one.
I don’t yet have the words to talk about the act of having to say goodbye. I hadn’t had to put a pet down before, but I’ve learned from family and friends that I am not crazy. It really is painful to put a pet down. But the outpouring of love and support I received made me feel incredibly grateful and far less alone.
I’d like to say that was my rock bottom, but unfortunately, my health quickly took a turn for the worse once more. While I know that all things considered, I could have it much, much worse, I felt myself breaking down. Being at work got really hard. It became difficult to concentrate, I lost my sense of balance again, and I was experiencing a whole new sensation of forgetfulness where the most familiar things suddenly seemed unfamiliar.
I continued to fight through it, returning to work every day and relying on yoga classes at night to ease my mind. And then I had a minor epiphany in a class one night. Folding into a pose, my teacher told us that “you have to go down to go up.” She meant it quite literally, but there was something more to those words in that exact moment that woke me up. The last seven months of fighting through health complications, struggling with familiar feelings of grief, getting my hopes up about a health recovery and falling back into the muddy waters once again…what if all of that has been about going down so I can make it back up? Like the stretch in the pose, the process is uncomfortable, but perhaps it’s necessary. Since then, I’ve repeated that simple sentence in my head every single day to hold on to that perspective. “You have to go down to go up.”
So. What does this long story have to do with a playlist?
Honestly, a lot. Each of these experiences factors into the songs I chose. Woven throughout the stories are turning points and unexpected changes, which are the main themes of this playlist. Through all the unexpected change that January brought with it, I was reminded that right now, today, tomorrow, things can turn around. You have to go down to go up.
If you listen for it, unexpected change and turning points can be heard all throughout this playlist.
The whole first half is a mix of mellow songs, but the tone and tenor shift pretty dramatically at a turning point marked by Mike Posner’s song “Move On.” Mike wrote this after his own experiences with loss: a girlfriend to a breakup, his friend Avicii to suicide, and his dad to brain cancer. Whether or not he’s actually there, he wrote about what a turning point means for him. Each chorus repeats “if I want to move on,” until the one at the end, which he tweaks slightly to say “I know I got to move on.”
Many other songs present change — sonically and emotionally — all throughout this playlist. Listen from start to finish to “I Need A Forest Fire,” “Stronger Than,” and “Warehouse.” Is what you hear in the beginning what you hear in the middle or the end? My favorite version of this is the opening song, also by Mike Posner. It starts off peacefully with just the piano, but builds as vocals and instruments are layered on. After Mike belts out “when somebody you love dies, but you still feel them around,” the song beautifully yet unexpectedly transitions into something that carries elements of both gospel music and Kanye West grandeur. And I tell you, it. hits. home.
I’ve been asked what to think of the last song, which to some feels really out of place if this theme of low to high is intentional. To me, it’s the final piece that ties everything together.
Given how pivotal that one yoga class was for me last month, I borrowed a concept from yoga called savasana. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s the few moments at the end of every yoga class when you lie down and are intended to enter a state of stillness, letting go of anything you’ve been holding onto and allowing your body and mind to be “reborn,” carrying the benefits of the practice with you into your day to day life.
Baba Yetu is my savasana, my spiritual moment. It’s a Swahili song that, when translated to English, is essentially the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the end of this playlist that presents itself as one last turning point. A new beginning. Because that’s what this whole thing is about.
Beginnings always hide themselves in ends. – Mike Posner, “Move On”