tilt-a-whirling

I’ve been on the verge of publishing this for weeks. Every time I think it’s “ready” I stop and wonder if I’m really able to live up to the standards set forth. Do I come off sounding too high and mighty? Too esoteric? Basically, am I bullshitting myself?

I’ve written about meditation before and the benefits that it can give you but the reality is that I rarely do it. I’m like the guy at a party who says he’s doing dry January and then cracks a beer several minutes in. There’s a difference between saying you do something and actually doing the something.

And yet I’m fascinated by the concept. I read about it, listen to podcasts, and expound its benefits to friends after a few kolsch’s. But the reality is much more complex: sitting with your eyes closed doing nothing is actually really fucking hard.

Sometimes we need a kick in the ass to fully realize the hypocrisy of our own minds. We need a sudden change in perception – like the author deciding to take a minuscule edible and then doubling down.

So there I was navigating the tangly depths of an edible, my mind tilt-a-whirling between different sensations, and ironically, what got me to slow down was re-downloading an app – another munchy brain-bite in a long list that night. Waking Up, by Sam Harris. I’ve mentioned it before and since have fallen off.

I sat in a dark room and listened to Sam. In his meditations he likes to reference the mind as a stage. I like to picture the director. It’s his job to put on a show and when I turn my attention inwards – looking directly at him, he notices and puts his best stuff on stage. The massive project at work struts out. Guilt about a text that hasn’t been sent or a call that should’ve been made comes next. All of these actors are great at holding my attention. They’ve done it for years and know the lines by heart.

Most of the time I’m whisked away by this play. The characters are wildly entertaining. As they should be – I created them. But once in awhile I’m able to lead my mind to a different headspace: a state that has access to a release lever.

I relax the muscles in my face a bit. Feel my skin soften into a less tense position. I loosen my jaw, un-clench my back. Sink lower. My shoulders drop. In a very simple, mechanical way, I relax. I clear my plate or as Sam Harris says in a metaphor that’s eerily satisfying – clear my mental inbox.

Try it. Don’t worry about all the bullshit, self-help mumbo jumbo. Start with one simple principle: for ten minutes watch the theatrical acts that come waltzing across your mental stage – and then let them go. Worst case, you can always go back to enjoying the show.

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modern mixtapes

I flick my laptop open.

Music, stifled when the screen was last closed, resumes abruptly. It’s jarring when a song launches from the middle, like waking up mid-flight, momentarily unsure of where you are, where you’ll land.

I smash the pause button and punch in my password.

Unlocked, my screen is a collage of open windows, half-formed thoughts. Chrome with a stack of tabs – maps, unfinished articles, shamefully titled porn, swell reports, the Aftmth – all of which I close rapidly, not wanting to be reminded of yesterday’s highs and lows.

Spotify looms in the background.

I bring it to the front and scan the listening activity of my Spotify buddies – D-man‘s deep in an ambient playlist, flowebrother‘s stuck on some bad 90s rock, which I’ll give him a hard time about later, el gringo is doing his stomp and holler thing, Francois is playing Ciara, odd for him, but then again, the guy listens to a bit of everything. Most people are dialed into new Travis Scott.

I think about listening alongside D-man but quickly reconsider, I’m feeling too blue for the ethereal sounds of Tycho. If I go down that road I’ll probably end up with a joint in my hand and really turn my day upside down.

Nope. Instead, I scroll through my playlists, our modern mixtapes.

For decades, friends, crushes and lovers, shared albums and made mixes. We, music listeners and music lovers, expressed ourselves by cassettes, or through the prismatic shimmer of a scratched CD.

Now we use playlists, which allow for shared, disparate listening. Two people, or millions, worlds apart, can simultaneously jam to the same set of songs.

Which, of course, brings me to her. Back to her playlist. It’s what I select now, what I knew I’d be listening to before I opened my laptop.

Her playlist… it’s a mountain of alt-rock, that, according to time stamps, she’s been consistently piling for the past couple years. I tuned in a couple months ago, after meeting her briefly and finding commonality in our musical affections.

We have no contact outside of Spotify. We’re not familiar enough to text back-and-forth and I’m not engaging in the flimsy like-this, like-that tennis of social media. Our only connection, the only signs of her being out there at all, is every couple days she adds a song to her playlist.

And when I listen to that song, her newest jam, latest anthem, I find myself above my desk, a thousand miles away from Portland, somewhere in her atmosphere. I hear RKS wail and I can’t help but imagine her working in the coffeeshop she described, or aux-ed in on the drive to one of the weekly folk-rock shows she goes to. And overtime, patterns emerge. Moods take shape. This music, her playlist, is the soundtrack of her days. It stethoscopes her nature. She’s happy, she’s sad, in love, heartbroken.

In college, I’d sometimes ask girls I was sleeping with, or wanted to sleep with, what they were reading. That way, when time passed inevitably, and they disappeared from my twin bed or from that semester’s class, I could pickup the book and share with them the words on the page. To read the words they’d read was to participate in something together again.

Sometimes, feeling pathetic about my musical voyeurism, I snap shut my laptop. Get a life, quit listening to someone else’s. But curiosity and catharsis bring me back. Music has the capacity to fill (and yes, also widen) the voids of longing and loneliness. Not with her in mind or body, I can be with her in the shared experience of her playlist. In memories made, in futures possible, and now, above my desk, silently listening to the musical choreography of her days.

She’s just added a song. Let’s listen together.

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash