During the first semester of my sophomore year, I took a class called “Race and Gender in Pop Music.” Fortunately for me, this didn’t simply just mean pop music, but also extended into the breadth of rock and roll. I loved it.
One day, our professor gave us this task at the end of class:
“Next time we meet, I want you to think of what your anthem is – like a song that really represents you.”
And she gave us a week to think.
By next class, I hadn’t thought of a song – I couldn’t choose. I told the class “White Flag” by Dido was my anthem because it was the first song that I felt like I ever “got into.” After that song, I became a Dido fan and that’s how I became the music-geeky person you know today.
Since then, I always liked pondering about what my anthem was as sort of a thought to get entranced by whenever I was daydreaming. Would it be “Thunder Road” by the Boss? Would it be “Falling Slowly” after all of those times that I watched Once? For awhile, I thought it was “England” by the National, but I believe that “England” is my favorite song. That is different from an anthem.
Two years later, this year, I created my anthem.
I first listened to this particular song after I watched High Fidelity for the first time. For a long time, the song always had this sort of romantic connotation to it. I mean, if a young John Cusack made a mixtape for me and this was on there, who wouldn’t be smitten?
I had always really liked Stevie Wonder growing up, but his music was always in the background for me. I don’t know if I would even really consider myself an official fan either – I’ve hardly gone through his discography. However, I was always, at the very least, a casual fan because I always loved playing the Stevie Wonder trumpet parts in band.
“Sir Duke” was always so much fun to play and I’m pretty sure I started playing “Superstition” when I was a freshman in high school. I’m particularly fond of “Sir Duke” because the first time I listened to it was in the car while I was waiting for my mom to pick my sister up from a friend’s house. I, unsurprisingly, was hiding from social interaction and listening to music. This… song came on, and it was so optimistic and upbeat and happy and I had to dance. I had no way of telling what the song was (it was before the days of Shazam), but I didn’t care and just simply danced. I knew that the song would come back into my life again. And it did.
But it was High Fidelity and this power of such emotion that seriously drew me into his music. It played to the melodramatic entertainer in me. Oh, reveling in such vocal prowess! I started listening to more of his stuff and got more interested in other soul and funk artists as well.
It was this year when “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” became my anthem.
It was first when I was starting to finally feel better about everything in LA. I had been able to get back into the swing of driving after my accident and I was being a lot more cautious. I was starting to be less mousey and anxious at with the people I was meeting and thinking of myself with the mindset that yes, maybe this isn’t a fluke that I’m here.
Cognitively, I was in a better place.
I liked the routine that I established. While I still was dealing with my anxiousness, I could find periods of happiness that were becoming less of pockets of time and more breadths of stability. I didn’t automatically expect upheaval – things could be normal and I would be all right with that. I was getting to know people better and was happy with the wonderful closeness that I was developing with new friends.
Amoeba Music was part of that routine. It was quick to drive there from the apartment and if I didn’t have much homework or if I was done, why not go? Why not just walk among all of that music, all of that history, all of that sound? The life of the place boosted me whenever I walked in and it felt like home.
One day, perusing the CDs, I found the High Fidelity soundtrack. I always loved the music in the film and it made me think of Chicago. Despite feeling more comfortable in this new city, I couldn’t wait to be home again. The bridges, the river, the lake. So, of course, I was going to buy the album.
Driving back, there was a moment in the car while listening to “I Believe” where I finally let go.
I can be really hard on myself. It’s annoying to my friends, family and myself. Not so much because we’re all heartless. It’s because we all know that I don’t need to be like that to myself and that it’s debilitating to always hear about my self-criticisms. My self-deprecations. A spiraling sense of drama of something that doesn’t exist but something that I feel.
When the semester started, I went into LA a little physically heavier than I’ve been that the last few years. Not extremely noticeable to other people, but because I used to weigh even heavier, I’m very vigilant about the way my body feels. I remember packing for the LA semester and crying because I kept trying on all the clothes that used to fit me just three months before. I couldn’t even pretend to button some buttons or make some zippers work.
With that, I went to LA with a critical look on myself. This reflected in how I interacted with people. It was like how I used to be in high school – I was more subordinate, quieter, timid, less confident. Certainly not the pub-strutting version of myself that I grew into while I was in London. The previous semester was also different because I was going into London with a better sense of self-worth. LA, I was already feeling like I was tired of dealing with my problems.
When you have a negative mindset about yourself, it makes your way of interpreting events more difficult. You tend to pick out the bad in situations a lot more easily. I let my feelings of discomfort rule my head at times. Reaching back to the past – calling home, reaching out to friends that I missed at school and from home – was a coping mechanism. It was sometimes healthy, but sometimes it was excessive and took me away from the present.
Despite this, I had traveled too much to let a city rest on its own without me. I felt best when I explored.
My screenwriting professors at the end of each class would always tell us to “Keep going.” I’d think about that whenever I had to drive places or do tasks at work that I had no experience with beforehand.
I started to work out more and I ate well considering there was a gym in the apartment complex and that there were eighty thousand grocery stores within a five-mile radius.
It was the routine.
It was working hard.
Knowing how to do those two things makes me feel like I’m on track even when I’m having a moment where I’m being hyper self-conscious. In the corner of my mind, even though I was overwhelmed, I knew that if I worked on focusing on those two things, I would feel better.
Once some of the initial anxiousness ebbed, I loved being in the moment of working. I was able to enjoy myself more during class and I certainly loved studying at my favorite coffee shop. I was beginning to allow myself to feel happy because I knew that I deserved to at least give that to myself.
So it was that moment, in the car, listening to “I Believe,” when that feeling truly settled.
And I realized that it wasn’t a love song.
Relationships and romance can be incredibly stressful. Of all things, it is very easy to get caught up in the minutia with those experiences. It’s not until later when you think to yourself, “That didn’t work, but I feel wonderful that at one point in time, someone felt that close to me.”
When you do finally take it in, it just makes you feel good that you were that good to yourself and that someone else noticed. And it’s not like you even were trying to be anything, you were just feeling so good about doing your own thing and that made another person, even with their own walk of life, be drawn into you.
That’s self-worth. That’s confidence.
It was with that mindset when I was listening to “I Believe” when I realized it wasn’t a love song but a song about overcoming those feelings of self-doubt and being above tormenting yourself emotionally. Why are you doing that to yourself? You don’t need to do that.
You have so much and so much to offer.
When Stevie sings “I believe when I fall in love with you it will be forever” I saw it in a different perspective – it wasn’t to anyone specific. It was the fact that one day, you will find someone who will love you.
And you’re always knowing of break-ups and divorces and all of that. But that hope is so powerful, that optimism is so uplifting. Because we do live in a world of break-ups and divorces, so why not put yourself out there because then you’ve at least tried. And you’ll meet people and some of those people will still be in your lives; they’ll just take a different shape. And at very least, why not feel let yourself feel good to believe in that hope?
Apart from relationships, why not put yourself out there in the world? The world is a cold and hard place but that’s why people are so grateful to find all the good that’s in the world. That’s how people get over crippling diseases and traumatic events and feeling depressed because thank God for the things that makes you feel good.
It was that moment where I started belting along with the song. Like comically.
You know what moment I’m talking about. When he’s saying that “God answer my prayer.”
I grew up in a church that was so wonderful to me but to be honest, my religious views are murky right now. But I felt so relieved to know that I would be able to allow myself to let go of my self-criticism, that I wouldn’t always be so trapped in my mind, so I sang along.
Despite the beautiful revelation that I had, of snapping myself to as I pulled into the parking garage, despite returning to that song in a new light up until the plane ride home, I thought that it was as simple as that. That I would never allow myself feel bad again because I had already learned my lesson.
Your mind moves with you no matter where you go.
I was very content and solid this summer. I had a fantastic internship that I loved. I was video editing again, and, oh my goodness, I missed it so much after a year. I didn’t even realize how much I missed it. But being someone that is fastidious about the correct placement of things (not my clothes in my room, rather the posters on my wall), editing is a grand sense of relief. That eagerness to create and edit is all right there on the timeline.
I was feeling content. I was feeling solid.
I allowed myself to forget that it was temporary.
There was one night in the summer where “I Believe” was a blast of reality. I didn’t listen to it with the right mindset.
I had just had an absolutely wonderful time in the city with a friend that I had met up with at a coffee shop. I had a great day at work and I had plenty of time to make the train at Union Station. I walked along Wacker Drive with the sunset glimmering on the river, walking next to the bridge that Rob Gordon milled around on when he was contemplating on his love with Laura. I let the dialogue from the film flitter around in my brain, switching back and forth from pretending to be Rob and imagining what it’d be like to be loved by Rob, to be his Laura. The buildings, beige with the glow of the lampposts, looked like river facades of Amsterdam. The L car routinely rattled on auburn tracks as I passed underneath its bridge. I kept walking, feeling as if I was stepping into a perfect moment. Or maybe that was just the caffeine kicking in.
I had reached the archways of the Lyric Opera, the lights hanging, illuminating the sidewalk below. The beautiful, grandiose buildings across the street created a cubism portrait of the skyline in front of it.
What a perfect place, I thought, thinking of how a city, once again, made me feel at home, no stressors in any part of my mind. I want to spend an eternity here. I want to find love here.
The song had swelled to when Stevie was singing about prayers. I crossed the street and looked down, the road and the future suddenly seeming so long, so vast, like when you stare at a diagram of our solar system for too long.
This is all just temporary.
A nasty feeling crept up from my stomach to my brain. The freeing feeling, the summer, this moment – that’s all it was, just a moment. And it was going to go away. One day soon, I would be back in a place that I had left behind. I had left people behind.
And my mind menaced me.
The rest of the train ride home I sat shaking, listening to nothing, watching people walk up and down the aisle. I told myself that it was because I drank too much coffee.
I didn’t listen to the song for awhile. In fact, for a variety of reasons, it really hurt to listen to it. I became afraid of my own anthem because I was allowing myself to dwell. I was allowing those negative thoughts to come back.
Especially when I went to back school.
Seeing people that you befriend nearly two years prior and then expecting to have the same friendship again is like having drunk goggles on. You’re pretty sure you know what you’re doing, but every now and then things get a bit wobbly. I fortunately did have a lot of good people that I relied on, at school and at home and other places where I had met people.
But I had changed. And it’s not like they were going to know exactly how.
I had reset the cognitive clock and I was the early-February version of myself again. Unsure and nervous. This time, I had been in Syracuse before, but everywhere I walked, I remembered so vividly what it was like to walk next to those beautiful beige river facades, those glowing lampposts. I had become petty about looking at trees instead of skyscrapers.
I worried that I had become ungrateful. I was acting spoiled in some respects, but I allowed myself to wallow in self-pity instead of acting against my neurotic tendencies. My high school habits were easy to rely on because they were that – easy.
To be honest, I still at times revert back to that sort of thought process. That wariness, that search for the negative. Creating scapegoats, crying for no reason. When I was in LA, I thought it was all going to go away but I hadn’t allowed myself to admit to myself that I am harder work than that. I’m smarter than that. I’m so smart that I can manage to trick myself thrice times over.
But you know what does help? Learning to own it.
I am very intelligent and I have always considered that my greatest strength. That is always what I rely on, which is why I am at such ease when I work, when I create. In a way, I have made myself so strong that even though I could be pulling myself up from some dark emotional hole that I dug for myself, there is no way in Hell where I am going to give up on what I am working on, what I am working for. At my center, at my core, is perseverance and diligence. Even if I can’t always reflect that emotionally, I will always reflect that in what I do with my productivity.
I thought that I would be a better person if I were less of a control-freak with my own mind instead of accepting who I am. Because even if I am allowing my mind to branch off in a thousand tiny spindles, at least I know who I am, truly. And that takes courage.
I got this feeling in my gut when I began to listen to “I Believe” again.
I was walking up the monstrosity of the hill that I have to climb each day to get to class. It was the second to last week of school. I was preparing to go into finals mode and my brain began to compartmentalize the hours in the day, the techniques and tools that I needed to use for each final or project that I had to turn in. My mind was at its most productive and I was feeling vibrant.
I was walking up the hill and seeing my breath in front of me and dared to listen to the song again. Instead of being bombarded with nostalgia, I remembered what I felt in the car, belting, and used that to push me up. Lift me up into that feeling of power, that feeling of surety. This semester was an emotional rollercoaster but by God, at least I was going to destroy my finals. And I did.
So here I am, on the cusp of a New Year, as we all are. There are many, many people who have felt the things that I have felt, have been on the roads that I have had to cross. It’s just taken me until now to join the variety of collective experiences, the good and the not-as-fun, shall we say.
I’m going to graduate this upcoming year, as many of my friends and my peers will do as well. We’ll be searching for something, be it a job or a home or a network. Or something simpler, like truth. Or grander, like the world. And as we do, every now and then, it’s nice to drive around, listen to Stevie Wonder, and just let it all out.
Because in the end, it’s okay.