Music and the Power of Distraction
Updated: Mar 1
Perhaps one of the most overlooked tools in recovering from illness is distraction. The mind is a tricky thing—a wanderer, a talker who thinks it’s right all the time and tries to convince us of this, whether true or not, worrisome or hopeful. When yoga just won't cut it and you cannot go out for a long walk, sometimes the best way to get it to shut up is with distraction.
And I can think of no better form of distraction than music—better than t.v., reading, talking, working or eating, though a close second to sleeping and sex and with fewer side effects than drugs. Of all the senses, sound has the most profound effect on me. I cannot write and listen to music at the same time because of its emotional effects. Music seems to bypass the mind and aim straight for the heart and soul. Certain songs are embedded in my memory according to an event, a place, a person.
Our house was filled with music when we were growing up. In the early years, our mother's music of choice was jazz, particularly the Brazilian kind: Jobim, Gilberto and Sergio Mendes of Brasil '65 and '66 fame. (It may sound strange or old fashioned to many, but not to me or my siblings.) I was listening and mouthing the Portuguese lyrics as I was learning to speak English. My sister would pretend to play the piano on the old Singer sewing machine, the one with the latticed pedal, and I'd play the maracas and tambourine. These songs were also my lullabies, those swinging, sweeping, complex melodies and Latin rhythms. Today, without thinking I reach for that music when I am most sad. It reminds me of home and never fails to lift my spirits or give me a release.
The music we listened to evolved with the times, but my sister, ever the maverick, was always one step ahead of the popular wave. In the late '70s, she was listening to Ricky Lee Jones's phenomenal self-titled first release, with the jazz, reggae and early rapping influences, and Bob Marley's awesome Kaya (my favorite album of his to this day) before he hit it big in the States.
Seasons have their music, too. A few years ago in December when I was experiencing some new physical problem, I came across three different PBS specials. One was of Sarah Brightman performing live in a European cathedral and another of Celtic Women with an entire troupe of dancers, singers and musicians. A third concert was of Sting, who performed songs from his release, If On a Winter's Night. The songs seemed suited to the contemplation and joy of the season with slow rhythms and low strumming string instruments accompanied by a harp. The concerts calmed me completely, body and soul, and helped me through a difficult period.
One Thanksgiving I spent in Los Angeles with my "Uncle" Gary, an old friend from Chicago. In the '70s we used to make the drive south from Milwaukee to his artist's loft, an industrial space downtown located beneath the El tracks. On the drive up to LA, I listened to some music sent by my brother, who said, "I think this will help you. It's helped me." He sent along three discs: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, which we heard a lot growing up, a Theolonius Monk disc and a more recently "found" recording of Monk and Coltrane performing live at Carnegie Hall together. And my brother was right. I needed to hear them. They brought me relief somehow.
Returning home that night, I changed stations on the radio in search of something to sing to, but found nothing except Christmas songs, which I will happily listen to, but only after December 1st when the joy of Christmastime with its low-toned bells, airy chimes and twinkling lights on quiet nights take us down the path to Christmas Day.
I turned off the radio and followed the lines on the highway through the dark canyon in silence.