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Falling down a wormhole in the kitchen: music as time-travel

January 11, 2012

Don’t you find, as you get older, that life grows less linear? As a child, a teenager, a young adult, it seemed perfectly obvious to me that life was on a trajectory. Each year, you looked down rather on the immature person you had been the previous year, and looked forward to the achievements of the next. Even in the existential crisis  of leaving school/ university and wondering where life was going next, you never doubted that it was going forward. These days, I’m not so sure.

Nor is that a bad thing. From the (very) little I have gleaned of physics, the idea of time as linear (or even of time as a concept at all, but that’s way too abstract for me) is generally disregarded these days as far too simplistic. As with space-time, so with memory: life is constantly referring back on itself, looping through previous experiences, bubbling in and out of the past and present. And for me, as no doubt for you, it is music which is the conduit for these journeys of the mind.

The Indigo Girls

So the other day, for example, I was getting supper ready in the kitchen and decided to put on some music to keep me company. The boys were playing in the next room; their father had retreated to an armchair where he was hiding behind the newspaper. On a whim – a need for female company, perhaps?  – I put on the Indigo Girls, an album I haven’t listened to properly for years. And within a few bars of a song, I was back in a previous life. I was single, a young post-grad student at Oxford. Everything was possible in life, nothing was defined. The choices before me were exhilarating and terrifying. Adulthood was new to me: amongst some of the brightest young people of my generation, I was exploring what it meant, working out my gender politics, my sexual mores, my political and social values. Thanks to my Canadian flatmate and American friends, the soundtrack of my life was KD Lang, Sarah McLachlan and the Indigo Girls. I was reading books like ‘The Feminist Reader’ and ‘Celibacy as Passion’ (must admit I struggled a bit with that one). On my door I pinned a postcard of  Roy Lichtenstein’s growling dog. I was angry, confused, determined, seeking: I must have been hell to live with. It was the most intense and difficult time of my life. I loved it.

Roy Lichtenstein, "Grrrrr!!'

Suddenly, a shout from one of my sons sucked me back into the present so fast that I felt dizzy. Here I am, a mum in her forties, chopping vegetables for the family’s supper. How did that happen? And what happened to that angry young woman? Well, dear reader, the short answer is love. Did I betray the sisterhood by getting married and giving birth to boys? Far from it. I found what every human being needs, whatever form it might take: loving companionship, a sense of true homecoming; happiness. I am extraordinarily fortunate. That girl that I was twenty years ago, though, is still part of me: listening to my old cassette of the Indigo Girls, now transferred to my iPod, reminds me of that. This, I think, is one of the magical properties of music. It catapults us back through time, and re-connects us with our previous selves. And if you don’t remember who you were before, how can you appreciate the person you have become? Thank goodness for music, for songs which jumble our memories and weave together the threads of our lives.


You might enjoy: The long-term effects of childbirth on the emotions;

You know that dreaded question at parties? I have an answer! No wait, I have two.

or A piece of Pi for the innumerate, or Physics can be phun.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2012 4:39 pm

    Gosh, I’ve been sitting here with the comment box open for ages, DB, but instead have found myself entranced by the link at the bottom of this lovely post. Such fun to discover some of what I missed by not finding your blog until last spring. 🙂

    I so agree with you about the power of music to enable time travel, if only in the head and heart. The Beatles Rubber Soul takes me back instantly to being a first-year undergraduate, just finding her feet in Oxford in January 1966, while a snatch of Gregorian chant can transport me to the early1980s, when I was just discovering this ancient music. I could go on…..

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 11, 2012 11:34 pm

      Thank you, I’m glad that the links are useful to someone! I bet that each of us has a whole memory box of music, if we stop to think for just a few moments. I suppose that’s why the radio programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ has been so successful for so long.

  2. Margaret Lambert permalink
    January 11, 2012 4:58 pm

    It seems that many of us can time travel in an instant, when we hear familiar music from some distinct part of our lives… and life certainly is less linear now, as I am constantly looping around what has taken place: was it only 3 months ago? Was that really 15 years ago?! I will be 60 this year, and yet I can so clearly remember roaming the neighborhood in Savannah at 4, our summer in Europe when I turned 8, the exhilaration of being 16, the whirl-wind of life with small children at 32, I know he will still love me at 64…I am loving my life.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 11, 2012 11:37 pm

      What a happy comment to read! Go you! 🙂 Memories are so precious, so easy to carry with us, and to carry us through bad times.

  3. January 11, 2012 8:43 pm

    By amazing coincidence, we were discussing Proust en famille tonight. We don’t always have such erudite conversations! I had met my former professor of French today while walking through the university campus (he’s an emeritus professor here, still researching well into his 70s). I very rarely encounter him, and the meeting had hurtled me back to my undergraduate days. What physically took my breath away was feeling again the complete, utter happiness of that time, when there was no separation between work and identity.

    Proust knew it all. There is no separation of the selves. They all still exist, within ‘l’edifice immense du souvenir’.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 11, 2012 11:45 pm

      How funny. I was thinking of course of Proust and the power of taste over memory, but decided to stick to the power of hearing in this post – not least because I’ve never read Proust, and it such a pseudy thing to do to quote books you haven’t read!
      Your phrase ‘no separation between work and identity’ really made me stop and think. Yes, that’s it exactly, that’s what study was all about. Such certainty, despite the existential crises.
      And I like Proust’s haunting phrase very much too. Perhaps I’ll have to read him one day after all. 😉

  4. Jenni C permalink
    January 13, 2012 6:24 pm

    I remember the scorn I felt towards those traitors in my French conversation class at university who said that they would be giving up work to be full-time mothers. And here I am, SAHM, watching Charlie and Lola with 4yo daughter, obsessed with quilting and a million times more sane than when I was earning (comparatively) big bucks in the City.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      January 25, 2012 11:45 am

      Funny how life turns out, isn’t it. 🙂 Thank goodness we learn to be a little less scornful and a little more understanding of ourselves and others as we get older.


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