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The Lost Art of Listening, Part 3: Precious Impermanence

I was one of those present at the spirited lunch debate between Andrew Peterson and Chris Thiessen (and others) that initially sparked this “Lost Art of Listening” blog conversation, and what I remember most of that particular meal was, not only the copious amounts of cheese dip consumed and the fact that I owed it to a younger generation to pay more attention to Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, but also how in awe I was of my community—the diversity of our views, the intelligence and civility and forceful (ahem) exuberance with which they are expressed, and the deep core of values we share.

As I listened to the Rabbit Room staff discuss what has been lost and what has been gained in the changing musical landscape of our culture, my mind bounced down its own chain of associations and I had the sudden memory of an odd, idiosyncratic fear from when I was a teenager. I had a lot of odd, idiosyncratic fears, both then and now (my recurring childhood nightmare was one of existential horror over the concept of infinity); however, this one seemed relevant and meaningful in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.

When I got home, I flipped through my old journals and found an entry from 1991 that expressed this fear I remembered: “When I find a song I like, I want to clasp it to me and never let go. It’s silly, but I’m so terrified of songs being lost forever—I wish I could gather all my beloved music together and never lose it, never forget it.”

For me, the issue wasn’t so much scarcity vs. ubiquity, as Andrew put it, but something else: it was music’s impermanence that once made it precious to me. And I wondered where that fear had gone, and what had gone with it.

(Rewind) Fifteen-year-old Jennifer is lying on her bedroom floor, listening to Amy Grant’s album Never Alone over and over and over again.

By the way, Andrew articulated well the archaic joys of cassette tapes, but he did not mention the carefully acquired skill of pushing in rapid succession (but not too aggressively, lest the tape snag and snarl) the rewind button, then the stop button, then the play button, then stop, rewind, stop, play, stop, fast forward a tiny bit, stop, play—all to get back to the exact beginning point of the song you wanted to hear again. In the most delicate circumstances, a pencil stuck in the middle of one of the reels could work wonders. Rewinding was an art form unto itself.

I reveled in those hours of quiet and solitude in my room, and I listened with liner notes in one hand and my journal in the other, poring over lyrics and copying down the ones I loved most. I wrote almost as many songs in my journal in those days as my own entries, because when a song reached down into my soul and touched a string, I couldn’t bear to let it go. The Never Alone album was one of my first experiences of feeling like a singer had shamelessly plagiarized my heart and laid bare all my hidden insecurity and longing and angst, especially “All I ever have to be is what you made me”—which I memorized so thoroughly that it still runs through my head today when I start to forget its truth.

(Pause) The only time in my life I have ever fan-girled was last year when Amy Grant sang at the Local Show and I nervously cornered her afterward and gushed about how that song had been one of the most important songs that helped me grow up—and then instantly forgot the name of the song. I will never fan-girl again.

(Play) Before writing this post, I found Never Alone on Spotify and listened to the whole album from start to finish while lying on my back on the floor, just as I did in my teens. And it was hard—not because of the music, which brought back a warm flood of memories, but because I couldn’t keep still. I had a constant urge to check my phone, my mind kept wandering to my to-do lists, my limbs were antsy, I fidgeted, I kept checking the Spotify playlist to see what was next. Unless I’m riding in a car on a long trip or sitting in a concert, I simply don’t stop everything else and listen anymore. I rarely give an album the time and attention I give to a book—I listen as I’m doing other things, like the dishes or computer work. Yes, I’m listening, but I’m not deep listening, not like I used to.

Now, part of the problem is my ever-shrinking attention span and the ever-growing responsibilities and distractions of adulthood. And part of it, certainly, is the fact that, because of the internet and my peculiar Nashville community, music is swirling around me all the time.

But I think a large part of my carelessness about music now (though I love it just as much as I ever did) is that I no longer need to cling—I can always come back to it and listen later or bounce on to the next thing, because the illusion of permanence offered by the internet can, if I let it, diminish the preciousness of what I hear. There’s not only so much of it, but it waits in the shadows for me until I want it, like an obsequious butler.

(Rewind) When I was fifteen, I sat with my music as I’d sit with a dying friend.

I drank in every last drop of it because I didn’t know how long the moment would last—copying it, singing along with it, committing it to writing, committing it to memory, lest it suddenly vanish from the earth and leave a permanent gap in my heart.

It was during my high school years that the music world shifted from cassette tapes to CDs, and I resisted for a long time—because I’m a dinosaur, and because those tapes were precious to me. What if technology kept changing and changing and I could never listen to the older albums anymore because the world would forget them like it was already forgetting the Walkman that played them?

But that was just one piece of a much larger fight against time that colored my whole adolescence. I felt impermanence everywhere. The first Gulf War happened when I was fifteen, and the day war was declared I remember running to my room absolutely horrified and sinking into my music. It was the first major world event that blew apart my childhood sense of security. (Little did I know that my future ex-Marine husband was in his own bedroom that day thinking, Yes! Adventure! Let me at it!) War or no war, I was desperately scared of the future. I didn’t want to grow up. I didn’t want to leave home. I didn’t want anything I loved or relied upon to change.

Music was a fleeting thing that I could somehow capture, record, rescue. I thought, if only I can still have this song in twenty years, I’ll get through it all. I’ll still be me. My world won’t change too much. If I could nail it down somehow, somewhere, in one more mix-tape or in the pages of my journal, the music would anchor me.

When I was fifteen, I sat with my music as I'd sit with a dying friend. Jennifer Trafton

I think part of my obsession with my parents’ record collection (other than the fact that, as my dad joked, I was born in the wrong decade) was this same fear of precious things being lost, and of the need to save and preserve them by loving them hard enough. I was fascinated by the way, in those days, many songs seemed to have become part of a common cultural songbook, leaping from album to album as different artists kept them alive—a kind of collective battle, perhaps, against the very impermanence that I feared. And so, while my dad eagerly gave me an education in the musicology of the ‘60s-‘70s, I studied those albums on our shelves—from the Beatles to the Carpenters to Dan Fogelberg. This certainly didn’t help me feel any more at home amongst my peers, since I wasn’t aware of anyone else in my high school who knew who Paul Simon was much less who spent study hall trying to dissect the lyrics of “The Sound of Silence.” But it did mean my dad and I could share quality father-daughter time watching The Peter, Paul, and Mary 25th Anniversary Concert, complete with PBS telethon interruptions and fatherly commentary. And it meant that, if I had anything to do with it, we had to listen to my mother’s Carpenters Christmas album as we were putting up the tree together (and we all had to do it together), because that moment and that album were inseparable. I was cementing a memory of our family’s love, while Karen Carpenter sang, making sure I wouldn’t lose it.

We were (and still are) a listening family. It is now ensconced in family lore how my brother Joe, as a four-year-old, would sit beside the huge stereo cabinet in our living room and listen to the entire Star Wars soundtrack on 8-track—not moving from his spot, just listening, from beginning to end, again and again. (He is now the musical director of an opera house.) The very concept of “background music” was always anathema to Joe—if the music’s good, it deserves your full attention—and though his scorn for it never quite fully reformed the rest of us, it has certainly rubbed off on me in lingering feelings of guilt over moments of inattention ever since.

We all had our unique tastes—Joe had his Mahler and Bruckner, my other brother Stephen his Broadway soundtracks—but even with our differences, so many of our common touch-points as a family were musical. One of the memories I most treasure is how, every time I returned home from college or seminary, Stephen (still a young teenager) would pull me up to his bedroom and play me every single album or song he had discovered and loved since the last time I was home—a Stephen Sondheim musical, a Mark Lowry parody, an amazing guitar riff in a Burlap to Cashmere song. And in those years before we had books or theology or other common interests to talk about, we sat quietly and listened together for hours, and the music was the ground upon which we built a relationship.

(Fast Forward) I adjust to change at glacial speed. I’m always about a decade behind in fashion or technology. The transition from CDs to iTunes was painful for me, and I haven’t yet gotten rid of my old collection. Only very recently, in the last few months, have I finally succumbed to Spotify and Apple Music and other internet streaming services—at first just to listen to Rabbit Room playlists, but also lured by the same delight in musical discovery that Chris described so eloquently in his post, and which Pandora had unlocked for me so wonderfully in the past.

Within a few clicks I was overwhelmed. I can listen to any Jim Croce song I want. I can hear almost any kind of music I want, any artist or album I ever loved and thought I lost, right here, in an instant. They have Helen Reddy on here, are you serious? Oh my gosh, I could listen to The Music Machine and Sir Oliver’s Song again? Golly day, I forgot about that song. I forgot I even use the phrase golly day. How could I have forgotten?

What on earth would teenage Jennifer have made of all this?

It was both exhilarating, and in a very odd way, anticlimactic. Here was permanence, or the illusion of permanence, anyway. And suddenly the very preciousness of that ancient vinyl from my childhood I stumbled across at Goodwill, or the tape I literally played to shreds because I’d pushed the play and rewind buttons too closely together too many times, was diminished a little bit.

Or perhaps not.

(Rewind) When I was fifteen, I was terrified of the passage of time and clung to the music I loved lest it be carried away by that great tide sweeping over me. What I didn’t yet understand was that time would also change my relationship to those songs, those albums. There are a few that I will never outgrow, but most served their purpose for the time when I needed them and have value to me now only for the purpose of nostalgia. Their preciousness lay precisely in the transience of their role in shaping me for a season.

The dying friend I was trying to keep alive was not, in retrospect, the music itself, but the age that I was, the little world I knew, the family moments I cherished, the feeling and the faith a song evoked that seemed frighteningly unstable and fleeting.

Instead of my needing to preserve the music, I realize now that the music has preserved something of me. Jennifer Trafton

I can measure my life by the albums that defined each stage of my growth. I can tell you the contours of Jesus’ face sketched so vividly for little Jennifer by Michael Card’s music. I can tell you of the Twila Paris concert my dad took me to, and why the song “How Beautiful” haunted me for years afterward. I see so clearly now how the poetry of Rich Mullins’ lyrics—particularly in A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band—sparked a longing for beauty in me that led me to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Yeats, and Hopkins. I can tell you why the Indigo Girls sound like college to me, and how Over the Rhine’s Drunkard’s Prayer got me through the death of a friend and Sarah McLachlan sang me through heartbreak. I can describe for you how I knew I was a goner ten years ago when my new friend Pete gushed over the alliteration and assonance of a particular lyric by The National and wanted to listen to it together so I could share in his ecstasy.

Now that I’ve gotten used to the jarring boundlessness of streaming music, I’m so thankful for it—thankful that the semi-permanence (and the ubiquity!) of music on the internet means that I can suddenly find songs I had lost, albums that I’d completely forgotten about. Yet now that I’ve unearthed them again, I’m reclaiming pieces of my life I had forgotten too—past chapters of my identity and my friendships and my family, moments that now flood back to me because they are linked forever with the lyrics and chords of a particular song.

(Play) Would I remember the moment of wistful solitude and prayer on a heather-covered hill overlooking Edinburgh on Easter Sunday 1996, separate from the melodies and stories of Michael Card’s The Life on my Walkman (I somehow still listened to cassette tapes even in 1996) underscoring the whole experience? And that was itself, at the time, a deliberate rewind to my childhood faith, which had begun to feel so distant.

Would I remember the moment of companionship sitting with one or the other of my brothers, or this or that friend, or my husband, if it had not been captured and sealed into that song we were listening to and bonding over? And now it is the song—rediscovered—that gives me back that moment, that memory, and the bond it produced.

Instead of my needing to preserve the music, I realize now that the music (still alive!) has preserved something of me.

The only way to let music truly be lost is to stop listening, deeply listening, living through it slowly, letting it seep into the crevices of my mind and my heart, and sharing that experience of deep listening with others I love.

So when I fast-forward again to the present, I am more eager than ever to be intentional about finding new music for this moment and digging down into it deeply. I want to find those albums that give voice to my heart and stretch my mind and imagination right now, and fully soak in them, letting their melodies and their poetry shape me and change me until they have done their work in me, and then I can relinquish them to the tide of time without fear, without loss, and receive the new year with its new songs.

Rewind. Stop. Play. Listen. Grow. Let go.

Because even if the music will last, frozen now in a vast digital cloud of data, this moment, this evening of fellowship, this chapter in my marriage, this particular season of my life, will not. And the intersection point where music and memory meet—that is precious.



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