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05/23/2013 06:34 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

The Healing Role of Music During Times of Change

I had an amazing feeling when I finally held the tape in my hand. I just thought to myself that in the palm of my hand, there was this one tape that had all these memories and feelings and great joy and sadness. Right there in the palm of my hand. And I thought about how many people have loved those songs. And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs. And how many people enjoyed a good time with those songs. -- The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I have called many places of natural disaster home. Growing up in Oklahoma, attending college in Norman during the Murrah building bombing as well as other tragic tornadoes that preceded this week's, living in Baton Rouge during hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav. Words fail in the aftermath of destruction, and my mind turns to song. Whether in the in-between time before what life used to be and adjusting to the new normal after loss, a song may be the only thing that can truly encompass the depth of emotion felt and the longing for hope that comes breath by breath, step by step, helping hand by helping hand.

Expanding beyond those facing recovery after trauma, any time of transition really calls for music. For example, the end of May ushers in the season of graduations. As countless grads don cap and gown, I think of how songs shepherd us through these times of transition and change. My high school graduation song was the Gen X classic "End of the Road" by Boyz 2 Men, a song that continues to remind me of that liminal period between high school and what comes next, what many now call, "emerging adulthood." But graduation defined only one of the many liminal times that demanded notation by a song. Like Charlie in the above quote from Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the power of choosing a song to demarcate a liminal period lies in the truth that in-between times are uncomfortable and music helps tether us to collective meaning and memory while empowering us to move forward into the future.

Music helps us survive the anxiety, anticipation, and fear that in-between times hold. In Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, young Nobody Owens finds sanctuary in an abandoned graveyard/nature reserve, where he comes to learn that his guardian, Silas, is a member of the Honour Guard, those who guard the borders of things. Borders, edges, places where we stand in between, demand tending even protection. Song helps soothes those edges. By the end of the story, Bod crosses the threshold from boyhood to manhood. His connections to the deeper truths of the universe firming up, taking on new edges, and his adoptive mother soothes the transition with song, a lullaby singing, "face your life, its pain, its pleasure, leave no path untaken..." The very song tethers him to the memories of his childhood and yet simultaneously sets him free to grow up and move beyond them.

As a Gen Xer, a song often played this mediating role in the form of a mix tape. Are you going on a road trip? Mix tape. Is it your anniversary? Mix tape. Did your best friend just break up with her boyfriend? Mix tape. Is it summertime, graduation, a birthday? Mix tape.

A modern day digital playlist will suffice, but the mix tape encompassed far more than the music but included the time, attention, and ritual involved in physically collecting, playing, and recording each song. Marking time took time. Each threshold given due attention through the sacred trinity of verbs entailed in mix tape creation. Pause. Play. Record.

And even now, when listening to the songs on a now obsolete mix tape is near impossible, the very tapes themselves become icons pointing to who we once were. This metaphoric eulogy to the mix tape began with a query of a dear friend of mine: What should I do with all my old mix tapes? She has moved countless times in the last 20 years, de-cluttering and refining what she carries with her each time, and somehow a shoebox of mix tapes keeps making the cut. Most of the tapes are now too warped to play, so why can't she throw them away?

My impassioned response, "Because they are sacred icons of liminal times past that speak to a common art form that perhaps only a small percentage of us, the Gen Xers, share!" Like the parody paper The Onion once reported in 1998, "Mix Tape Expresses Subtleties of Long-term Relationship." They wrote in jest, but their aim fell true, and all those tapes hold the sentiments and memories of those moments. As Summer Pierre wrote, ruing the death of the mix tape:

Nearly every boyfriend I had since 1991 got a mixed tape, as did a number of long distance friends. My parents even suffered a few. (My mom once asked me what I was trying to tell her by putting Prince's "Little Red Corvette" on her birthday tape of 1992.) The making of a tape had a specific system: 22-24 songs fit on a 90 minute tape (depending on the song length). I had to start both sides with a ROCKER, that acted as a call to arms, then the tape would end on a sort of quiet, thoughtful note. They were like letters that I wanted to fill the recipients with. I tried to woo boys I liked with tapes. I tried to keep my friends near. In a way, I captured my own life with these collections.

I thought of her description when I saw recently that fellow Gen Xer Wyclef Jean released a mix tape, April Showers, in anticipation of his studio album to come this fall. The term "mix tape" threw me into a technological panic until I realized that Jean uses "mix tape" figuratively not literally as a way to mark a time of transition or liminality in his life. Like graduation, a road trip, a break up, Jean faces a midlife transition. He took time away from the music business, is recovering from a failed run for president of Haiti, and survived an assassination attempt -- a ripe time for a mix tape. He brings in collaborators and friends to riff and sample, even adding an homage to deceased icon Whitney Houston, and though we cannot hold the mix tape in hand, his mix combines narrative, imagination and memory to ground this time in between.

And so as we stand on the cusp of summer, holding dear the tragedies of this past week and past year from tornadoes to gun violence, and it feels like more than words, we need song.

Pause. Play. Record.

What songs would you put on a "Summer of 2013" mix tape?

For more by Rev. Amy Ziettlow, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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