I am not really a music person. I can sing and play the piano, but as far as listening to music, I have pretty much been out of the loop since childhood. I'm content to listen to the same three Norah Jones CDs about 2,000 times each. I like Il Divo. I didn't even know who REM was until the early 1990s. The most avant-garde musical thing I have ever done was to see a Jill Scott concert in 2002. And I only went because a former work colleague had free tickets.
So I was somewhat surprised at how emotionally exhausting it was to clean out my CD collection today. It took only two hours but afterwards I collapsed into one of those naps where you don't really sleep but hallucinate while awake. It turns out that my music collection had a lot to say to me.
I initially thought I would make two piles: what I liked listening to and what I didn't like listening to. But it wasn't so simple.
It turns out that a fair amount of the stuff that I think is good is also white-hot with memories and feelings, including just about everything I listened to between 1999 and 2002. For various reasons, that was a tough period for me. I hadn't realized how tough until I cringed at the thought of hearing the perfect Audra McDonald sing "I Know I Had a True Love." I felt a similar mix of emotions contemplating the Carpenters' Love Songs, the soundtrack from Elton John's Aïda, and entire albums by Angie Stone and Cassandra Wilson. Gazing on the CD jackets, I thought, "how beautiful," and "ouch!" These albums remember pain for me in a way that my conscious mind doesn't. Some I kept, some I let go of.
There was another category of CDs: the ones that I loved and played endlessly -- and then one day just stopped playing. For instance, the 10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged album. I first clued into Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 Maniacs the summer of 1993, when I was working as a summer associate in New York. (Again, I have no idea how long they had been on the scene -- they could have been around since the Ford administration for all I know.) It matched that part of my life. I'd just arrived in New York, a foot firmly planted in both youth and adulthood. And now? Well, I guess I'm just not that person anymore. I'm sorry, Natalie. It's not you, it's me.
I told a friend that I needed to offload a bunch of my CDs, giving them either to Housing Works or the old man on 57th Street who sells random things off a card table.
"Why don't you just put them in the back of your shelf?" she asked.
"Because," I said, "even if they're in the back of the shelf, they're still taking up space. And I'm ready to have more space in my life."
When you hold onto things, you hold onto them. It doesn't matter if you cleverly pack them away or leave them in a big messy pile in your bedroom. Sometimes, moving forward requires letting the past be the past.