The silver metallic ink may have faded a bit, but the words are still clearly visible: “For Abby ~ Travellin’ Music.” The precisely formed letters immediately evoke visions of sentences diagrammed on whiteboards, answer keys created together and shared, a teaching partnership of mutual encouragement and competition. Decades later, I wonder if either of us would have gone so far without those shared years. I suspect we would have—we were (are) both driven—but my journey would have lacked a signpost I have depended on.
It was spring 2001. I had never really failed at anything—or so I thought. And now I was staring straight on at the possibility that my marriage was going to fail.
[Spoiler alert: because this fact isn’t the point of this story, let’s dispense with any suspense. Yes, we would separate shortly and our divorce would be final within the year. No villains—just two people each spectacularly unsuited for the life the other wanted. On my part at least, a choice fallen into out of fear and walked away from with the first tiny voice of trust in my head.]
I was teaching at a school that took a two-week break every March. I didn’t know how I would make it through two weeks at home without the grounding I felt every day in my classroom. When I walked into room 17, I was the person I knew I was meant to be.
So I didn’t stay home. I bought a train ticket to Chicago and a half dozen books [at least two still live on my book shelves, having traveled from New Jersey to Indiana to Virginia with me, talismans I’m not yet ready to let go of] and took a break.
Keep in mind that I’ve long been a bit of a Luddite (and I feel the Luddites have been unfairly maligned and recent climate tragedies vindicate their stance): I had mixed tapes I’d treasured but had reluctantly switched to a discman because I could no longer buy the albums I wanted on cassette. So when I walked into Ed’s classroom one day and commented on the music powering him through grading, I was intrigued when he said he’d burnt the cd and ecstatic when he offered to make me my own for my trip.
I spent that night carefully considering dozens of songs, solemnly placing some on the list, regretfully rejecting others. Sorry, 7th graders, if I didn’t finish grading your essays that night… I copied the list out, starting over when I made a mistake, determined that it would leave my hands an object of beauty. The next morning, I handed the carefully curated list to Ed, prayerfully confident that listening to the exact perfect playlist would fix this mess I found myself in.
Spoiler alert: this CD did not create/release/generate magic when it played. I did get divorced. The mess was not fixed. But I found myself in this mess.
I rode that train for 50-something hours through six states. The loud quiet of middle-of-the-night voices woke me in Cleveland. I rode through South Bend years before I would move there with the love of my life and give birth to our daughter there. I watched the sunrise over Lake Erie and stepped out on to the platform in Buffalo. I ended my journey where I began, in 30th Street Station. And through it all, I listened to that CD. Ed’s friendship and patience reminded me that I wasn’t alone. His slight exasperation at my wallowing (he may or may not have told me that the mere process of burning these songs for me depressed him) illuminated the way to the trailhead that I knew I would eventually need to find.
Adulting wasn’t a verb when I crossed from childhood to adulthood, though the expectations that came with the transition were certainly real.
The longer I spend my days on a university campus, the more profoundly I appreciate the symmetry of the digital divide between my childhood years and my adult life. I was a senior in college when I got my first email address, many years older than that when I sent my first text (remember I’m a Luddite)—and yet anything I missed out on in college was lost to my own inertia, deficit of trust, or lack of fortitude. Knowing my options was never the problem. Knowing my mind…
For a while I would tell my students about that faraway land—college without cell phones—and they would need to know how I managed—how any of us managed —to have a social life. Visions of white boards on dorm doors, markers dangling from string after the plastic clips meant to hold them had broken, did not reassure them. And yet, I never ate alone unless I wanted to. More recently, I think I detect a whiff of longing mixed with regret when I tell this tale. This world I describe to them will never—could never—be their world.
In crucial ways, I am a Dorothy who has surrendered to technology’s siren call promise of home. I have retrained my brain to work on screens. But it is a reluctant, imperfect surrender. I insist on reading novels in physical form, ink stamped on paper, paper pressed between covers. I do not understand applying the verb “reading” to an activity that does not involve turning pages, nursing papercuts as badges of courage. The object matters so much that I might have (despite my existential dread of climate change) just ordered a book from London to ensure I got the edition with the right cover.1 This essay, in fact, was drafted by hand in an old, treasured notebook, a fact to which I attribute the ease with which words flowed from my memory through the pen.
It’s funny the way our minds can rewrite our stories. Over the years, moments come when I need to remember that Abby. I slide the CD in (often I’m in my car, occasionally in my house) and I let the soundtrack of that journey swell around me. I wait for the line in the Kathy Mattea song that provided such clarity:
Good things only come to those
Who hit the road when they know what they want
And every time, I’m confused when the disc spins back around to track 1 and I haven’t heard it. where is “Patiently Waiting”?
Then I remember: for some reason, Ed couldn’t get it. Details have long left my memory, only the knowledge remains that he’d selected a different song as a substitute. It was a spot-on addition whose resonances I’m only now starting to appreciate. For so long, I held on to my desire to craft it2 on my own, with no help. What we had here (with my apologies to Paul Newman and Cool Hand Luke) was a failure to trust. Over my life, I had failed at multiple steps to take the risk that might have paid off with deep success or tremendous happiness, the step that could only be taken with trust in myself.
The mixed tape—or for those of us thrust into the digital world with adulthood , the mixed CD—is always incomplete without the contribution of someone else. The point is the curation of the music for someone else, the message that I see you, I know you.
I needed to make that playlist for the me I could only just catch a glimpse of, and I needed the confirmation from someone who looked at me with eyes more generous than mine.
1 The book is Tracy Chevalier’s A Single Thread. If you, like me, love books and needlepoint, you hopefully understand that the American cover with the nondescript woman standing angled away from the viewer in generic 1920s British clothing would never do as long as the British edition, the texture of linen, the embroidery scissors embossed and looking me in the eye, was available.
2 Do we ever cease to be students? I can hear my dissertation director warning me against dangling pronouns. Maud, you don’t need to correct this instance: this “it” really does need to be capacious in its ability signify a number of possibilities.