I woke up on the morning of my fortieth birthday feeling bad for myself. The precise emotions are hardly worth recounting, and furthermore I suspect anyone else reading this on the wrong side of forty probably knows what I’m referring to without saying a word. Suffice it to say that there was nothing particularly notable about the way I succumbed to middle age: the band shirts were more and more faded with each wash; the grooves wore a bit deeper and the needle a bit duller as the record turned round and round and round. Gradually, then suddenly, indeed.
But what was remarkable about this particular birthday was its context – with the world collapsing outside our door, sequestered here in our home. My son is five, which means I spent more time than I’d like trying explain the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary. He understands that people give him toys on his birthday, for instance, and he likes toys. Unsurprisingly, then, he would like for us to schedule more birthdays for him. But of course the reason for the toys on your birthday is a function of scarcity: like the boy who cried wolf, the child with biweekly birthday celebrations would soon find that no one was RSVPing to his invitations any more.
At my son’s age, you celebrate birthdays for the presents. At my age, you celebrate for the company (and perhaps the Facebook notes). I approached this birthday with a heavy heart, knowing that I couldn’t be with friends and family, and further knowing that there wouldn’t really be an opportunity to rewind time to have this moment back. Mine is such a trivial example of the kind of loss that this crisis has occasioned. Without the social, there isn’t a society; without communing, there is no community. This erasure will have long-term collateral damage: already in these last two months, I’ve missed three funerals, a wedding, graduations, birthdays…too much to count, and in one house alone. Given all this, the best that I could do, under the circumstances, would be to grin and get through it.
But something remarkable happened to me on my fortieth birthday. My extraordinary siblings and my lovely wife conspired to produce the most amazing and heartfelt gift that I could ever ask for: a mix tape (as my younger self would have called it), forty songs each contributed by ghosts of Christmases past and present that they had recruited to their plot. It felt as if I could share a real, authentic moment with friends who I haven’t seen in years, who I could never gather in a room together.
And it felt, too, like I had been wrong all these years about what was important about music. I’ve lived these last forty years in my own head – and in my own headphones, where the songs only meant something on the inside. I’d convinced myself that there was a perfect song for any moment, like cards in a deck waiting to be played, with the trick in figuring out the timing. The esoterica of who played what with who and when, the mistaking of trivia for consequence – I had missed the point entirely.
Here were forty songs before me. Forty songs that different people who I’ve known at very different times and at very different stations of my life thought of when asked of a song that came to mind when they thought of me. As each introduced their song, music quickly gave way to memory, to the shared moments that these songs had soundtracked.
In that moment I felt a profound sense of gratitude, and of connectedness. To realize that you’ve shared a moment in someone else’s life is a wonderful thing, all the more so if you have a song to mark it by. So here I am now: forty, quarantined, and with a whole new appreciation for what the music of my life means to me. My family and my friends gave me the most wonderful gift I could have received for my birthday this year, and I’d like to repay the favor by writing some liner notes. Let the music play.