Echoes – an essay

Three notes. Three notes pulsating through the darkness. Something within me rises to meet them. I’ve never heard them before, but I could swear a buried memory wants to claim them. Around me, the dimmed theatre sits hushed as the opening chords of “The Mighty Rio Grande” whisper in. For a moment, the movie takes a back seat to its own score; the story somehow overshadowed by the melody.

The moment passes. But somehow the music touched somewhere. Stirred something.

You know the feeling: a chord, an arpeggio, a riff . . . you hear it, and a memory explodes across your mind. A memory so clear, so present, you can taste, smell it. You’re there. Somehow.

“Jessica’s Theme” . . . It’s dusk; I’m on a ridge looking down across the North Carolina mountains. Fog slowly fills the fields, puddling like some lazy stream. A breath of mountain air ruffles my hair and whispers on through the trees. Absolute solitude. Reverence. Stars fight their way through the last light of the bleeding sun, their icy brilliance adding another dimension to the deepening void. That song somehow takes me there every time.

Through the years a group of songs has become so entwined through my being all I need to hear is one whisper–notes through the open window of a passing car, a barely-caught bar while scanning the radio, background mall music–and my senses jump on edge. Ears straining to catch it. Imagination somehow already replaying the scenes. “Taps,” “Bolero,” bagpipes wailing “Amazing Grace,” “Freedom,” others . . .

What is it? I hear it. Eyes widen. A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. I feel myself turning to the nearest person. Wanting to explain. To share. The half-smile freezes. The words die before they’re born. I’ve learned–it’s not their memory. It’s mine. I sit back.

In the theatre. Not alone, but alone, I take in the music. Acknowledging the rare moment–the moment when another song adds itself to your life’s playlist. You don’t pick the songs. They pick you.

I sit back and listen.

*author’s note: I wrote this on September 27, 2011, but over the last week a couple of songs crossed my path again. They took me back. Way back. So I decided to dig in my files and dust this off. Hope you enjoy it.

I Am Eighteen

*go ahead and listen to the soundtrack while you read

Sometimes I drive at night to clear my head. There’s something about moving aimlessly in the dark that brings a certain perspective to all the chaos. And I listen to music. I love listening to music while I drive.

I was listening to one of my “Libera” albums when the theme from “Gladiator” came at me out of nowhere. I pulled it up on YouTube and a wave of memories hit me . . . hit me and rolled me under.


I am eighteen.

It’s Thanksgiving break. I am a high school senior. My younger brother, Noah, and I are house-sitting for some friends over the holiday while our folks go to visit our big brother who’s off at college. We fill the weekend with movies, and “Gladiator” is high on the list.

The movie begins and I am swept away by the sheer magnitude of Maximus’ world—the warrior, the journey, the loss. A month ago, I signed the paperwork and sold my soul to Uncle Sam. In May I will leave for boot camp. I will be a warrior too. What is it in the spirit of every boy that screams for something to test his mettle? Give me a battle; let me prove myself. I don’t know . . . but I will find out; I will find out what I’m made of. September 11 is nothing but a date right now. The world spins in peace. I know nothing of terrorist attacks. My perception of warfare comes from the films I’ve watched, the books I’ve read.

The passion, the weight of Maximus’ love for his wife rocks me. I have never loved a woman. I have never had my heart broken. Noah will one day be my best man, but I do not know this. Dating is not allowed in my small high school. I’m too busy anyway with school work, church, sports, piano. In the spring, I will win a writing contest and travel to Washington, D.C., where I will spend the weekend with other state winners from across the country. We will go to the White House and meet the President, we will go to Ford’s Theatre, we will celebrate, I may develop a crush, I will slow dance with a girl for the first time. This will all be new to me. But something inside me yearns for a woman to win and love. I tell myself I will do it well. I will not mess up.

I fight for achievement, for recognition. I am driven. My parents push me. My dad pushes me hard. I will graduate at the top of my class. I need these breaks from school, because high school is brutally hard. 5AM mornings and late nights will serve to make my upcoming freshman year in college almost a breeze. But I do not know this yet. All I know is that I have an inner voice that does not allow me to slack. I want to be the best. I have much to live up to.

I have not experienced great loss yet. My good friend is not dead. The tree he will be climbing while I am at boot camp this summer—the tree that will fall while he is still working in it—is still standing, but it is rotting even now. I do not know this. I do not know what it is like to get a letter that tells you your friend is dead. Standing by gravesides and asking unanswerable questions is not familiar to me yet.

Christmas will come soon. I will get together with my whole family—uncles, aunts, cousins, grandmas. I feel so much older than my little, innocent cousins; knowing I am leaving soon for the Marines makes me feel old. I feel a weight inside I cannot explain. I am scared. But I will not let anyone know. It will be a wonderful Christmas; they always are. Because I am surrounded by love. Because the entire world is open before me. Because life is still simple.

I am eighteen.

gladiator 3

Who Knows Why


Who knows.

Who knows why you cried today.

See, you know it’s time to pack up the laptop and call it a day when you find yourself crying in a coffee shop, torpedoed by a bloody song that somehow snuck into your iTunes shuffle mix.

You would have been fine if the coffee shop’s wifi had just been working because you’d have been listening to a nice safe Spotify playlist—nothing jumping out to surprise you. No ambushes. No college flashback: sitting in a dark performance hall on a blind date with some girl. She was nice, wasn’t she? You think so. Did you ever go out with her again? You don’t think so; you can’t remember. There wasn’t anything romantic for you. So why this visceral reaction to this song? A song you heard over ten years ago.

Who knows? Maybe it was just the right blend of morose sky spitting a pall of mist onto the window in front of you while strangers—miles away through the half-inch of glass—trotted past, heads down, lost in their own worlds. Maybe it was the buffer of your earbuds—those walls between you and the girls sitting one table over, like they were wallflowers, a graceful distracted painting and nothing else.

Maybe it was just the reminder that you used to believe in a world where lovers didn’t leave, where you still held hands and kissed someone on the forehead goodnight and fell asleep smelling the ghost of their perfume.

Or maybe you’ve spent too much time on the edge of emotion, walking that tightrope between manic and sane, toeing Faust’s line, wandering gray, open roads tearing at the soil of yesterday’s long-forgotten harvest.

Who knows?

Who knows why you cried today.