By Tinka Harvard
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy is an imaginary space I would like to create where we ask the unsuccessful and uncelebrated to share the stories that tell of their fumbling or losing in life in pursuit of our authentic selves. In connection, we ask them to talk about the songs they would choose in making a playlist to reflect those experiences.
Here are some of my life's biggest moments in the form of a Top-10 Playlist.
1. I got lost in Brooklyn, walking in the rain, one Saturday morning on my way to take the SAT exam my senior year of high school. I stopped to ask directions, and the guy I asked happened to be going to take the same exam. He let me walk with him under his umbrella. After the exam he asked if he could see me again. We ended up dating for a couple of years.
Two years into our relationship, while I was living on campus at Columbia, he visited me in my dorm room. That weekend it rained something awful just like the day when we met. He asked me to come home for the weekend so that he could spend time with me, away from my grouchy roommate I guessed. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to stay with my friends and hang around school. He got angry and slapped me hard across my face. It was the first time he had hit me. I was stunned. My mom left an abusive marriage when I was a kid, so I know what leaving a violent relationship looks like. It was just us two alone in my dorm room. I couldn’t believe he had hit me.
I told him what he wanted to hear. That is, I said I would come home. I asked him to go on ahead and let me finish up a few things I needed to do for school, and I would meet him later. I did go home to my mom’s house that evening, and I invited him over. I wanted to be in a safe space when I told him it was over. Anyone who has met my mother knows not to get on her bad side. Sitting there in my momma’s kitchen he apologized for hitting me. He knew from the look on my face that I meant what I said. It was over. So he got up and walked out the door. That was the first and last time I was ever hit. I try to stay away from stuff like that.
The first song on my playlist is “Luka” by Suzanne Vega. A lot of people don’t know that this song is about abuse. Abuse is not okay. Everyone deserves respect. The music and lyrics of “Luka” are deceptively melodic and serene. Spooky once one learns what the song is about.
* * *
2. I enjoyed living on campus during college and being away from home. I remember during freshman orientation one of the orientation leaders told us to look around the room. He said many of the freshman would not make it to graduation. I remember the sadness and shock that ran through me when he said that. I loved school and the possibilities an education in life can bring. How sad that, for all the many reasons, not everyone would get the privilege of an education. I made a pact with myself that it would not be me, that I would not be one of the ones not to make it through. I had a couple close calls when I didn’t have the money for tuition fees. I ended up working three part-time jobs during college, and I made it through. I loved dancing on Saturday nights at campus parties. Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” was my favorite during this time. That’s number two on my playlist.
* * *
3. I was an English major, and one of my part-time jobs was an internship at a major publishing company. I remember hearing Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” for the first time on a little portable radio that my boss kept on her office desk. I liked that song immediately when I heard it. I liked it a lot. It may sound a bit strange, but during those college years, I was just learning about pop music. We always listened to soul music and jazz in our home. I grew up on the tunes of Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane, beautiful songs like “I Say a Little Prayer” and albums like A Love Supreme. Away from home, I was beginning to expand my musical experience. “Higher Love” is my number three pick.
* * *
4. One of my best friends was studying law at Harvard. I used to visit her often in Cambridge. What a pretty place. Surprisingly, it’s an incredibly difficult environment. The competition of the students in law school was brutal, so we would go on long car rides to relax. I loved waking up early on a Sunday morning and going for a ride while the sun was rising. On the radio in her car we listened to Depeche Mode, The Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, The Cure. Good stuff! I haven’t been to Cambridge since my friend graduated, but I will always treasure the memory of those sunrise rides on Sunday mornings and the good music we listened to. Number four in honor of this experience is Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.”
* * *
5. After college, I worked for the same publishing company where I had interned during college. I met Gisele one day while reading on the subway on my way to work. We had a lovely conversation, kept in touch, and later became friends. Gisele was from Florence. She was a pianist. I enjoyed going with her to the ballet and classical music performances at Lincoln Center. It was because of her that I learned of Chopin’s “Nocturnes” performed by Arthur Rubinstein. It is fifth on my playlist. We used to lay on the parquet floors of my Brooklyn apartment and simply listen to the gentle and tranquil nocturnes. I once said to Gisele that I felt a bit silly since I am not educated in classical music. She said something that serves me well to this day: “But you know what you like. That’s all that matters.”
* * *
6. I left publishing to work in a bookstore while I tried to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. (It turns out that I wanted to write books myself.) People think that working in a bookstore is sweet with all the romantic notions that come with thoughts of the literary world. Their thoughts of books are connected to the stories within them—fantasy and fairy tales, people falling in love, action and adventure—but working in a bookstore is deceptively hard work. Think about it. Think about how heavy boxes of books are. Shiploads of books were delivered every day to the stockroom. The guys in the stockroom would unpack them and enter them into the computer for inventory purposes. Their job was the hardest. Still, there was always a good vibe back in the stockroom. The guys had their music going on the radio while they unpacked the boxes, and they were super friendly and kind.
We, the booksellers, would then haul the books out onto the floor of the bookstore. Those books were heavy. Even if we used carts to transport them, they were still heavy. And being on your feet all day was difficult too. Sorting and shelving books coupled with being on your feet all day makes for a long and physical day. But I loved being around books, and we had a good atmosphere in the store. True story: I was in the store one night when one of the most famous people in the world came in with his entourage. This was a posh store on the upper east side of Manhattan. I was working the closing shift. When the store closed at ten, a couple of us had to hang around to straighten things up and make the store presentable for the early morning opening. That night while we were putting books back in place, our manager said that someone would be coming in while we were tidying up the store and we were not to bother him. It was ten at night, and we were exhausted. We had no interest in interacting with the lucky person who would have the run of the store to shop after-hours. That sentiment changed once we saw that it was Michael Jackson. We didn’t bother him though. He browsed the shelves while we straightened them up. He bought about $700 worth of books, mostly self-help and philosophy stuff. A couple of people asked for his autograph. He was sweet, really.
It was while working in the bookstore that I stumbled across the writings of Thomas Merton. While reading his books I realized that I wanted to write like Thomas Merton. I applied to and began studying at a seminary. I learned quickly that there is only one Thomas Merton. Still I try to write in a way that I hope inspires and informs in a meaningful way.
It was at seminary that I started listening to Enya. She’s a singer that lives a reclusive life in a castle somewhere in the mountains of Ireland. Sounds like heaven to me because I enjoy solitude immensely. Enya is good for the heart. Her music is ridiculously beautiful and soothing. There’s something satisfying about a woman creating and sharing beauty in this world, and at the same time staying away from the stresses of society. She inspires me with her songs. “Only Time,” in particular, is most gorgeous and a perfect addition, number six, for my playlist.
* * *
7. and 8. I also stumbled upon James Michener’s book Iberia, when I was in seminary. It wasn’t assigned reading. I was reading it for pleasure. Michener wrote in this book that every writer should go to Spain. This statement got to me. So I went.
There I listened to Bebe. Her music will surprise you. It’s fast and quirky and smart. Malo fits this time in my life well. It captures the Spanish idea of duende, the quality of passion and inspiration. The tune, ironically, is upbeat and fun to listen to, but the lyrics are heartbreaking, capturing the spirit of the difficulty of finding our way in the world in the midst of fear and violence. Spain is like that. It captures the heaviness that life can sometimes be, the longing for something better, and the promise of something good.
I taught English while I was in Madrid. I wasn’t any good at it, but native English speakers willing to volunteer are always welcome. Luckily, my students liked me because I really didn’t know how to teach English. My students were engineers who had spent nearly a lifetime repeatedly studying English grammar, but we didn’t have much of that in class simply because I wasn’t equipped to teach it. Many of us know what it’s like to study a foreign language for years and still feel like we can’t speak it. Unlike all their previous English classes, my class was more philosophical. We read, among other things, classic American literature like Catcher in the Rye, and I would have them write about their reflections on the reading assignments. And we would have discussions on various topics from pop culture to the meaning of life. They liked the different and quirky nature of my class, which better enabled them to practice and improve their language skills. So we enjoyed wonderful discussions in class, and they grew in courage and fluency.
I thought I should grow up and stop living this bohemian life as an expat abroad. I thought I should come home and get a real job. When I returned home, I missed Madrid terribly. While I was in Spain, Corinne Baily Rae’s song “Put Your Records On” was everywhere. It’s the cutest song about the idea of listening to music when we are sad, and in time, things will work out. When I listen to this song, which I am adding to my playlist to represent this life experience, I’m reminded of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” from which Rae took inspiration for her song, where he sings “don’t worry ’bout a thing.”
* * *
9. In “All That You Have Is Your Soul,” Tracy Chapman’s sings about how we need to honor ourselves and that we need to learn in life not to give the essence of who we are away. Simply put, we need to take care of ourselves. Inspirational writer Julia Cameron shares the idea of an artist’s date. We can take ourselves out and allow this time on our own to inspire and teach us the things that will serve us well in life. I transformed this idea to suit my situation at the time. I went out on my own. I walked in Central Park, visited the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. I took in my share of Broadway theater and passed time on the Highline. Ironically, that’s when I began to write earnestly. I simply put my bottom in the chair, and I wrote. “All That You Have Is Your Soul,” number nine on my playlist, is a heartfelt lesson and reminder to not always give away all that we are and to honor our deepest selves.
* * *
10. In time, you get to know that you are enough. You learn in life, as Veronica Shoffstall says in her poem “After a While”, to “plant your own garden and decorate your own soul.” After all this time, I am learning to not look to others to fill me up. There is the idea to “be still and know.” In stillness and quiet, sitting in meditation, I get to know the rhythms of my heart. I’m not sure where I will go from here in life, but maybe being a little older and a little wiser will help me to be good to myself.
I’m choosing “Green & Gold” by Lianne La Havas as my tenth and final song on this playlist. She’s a singer that I’ve recently been listening to. I love her youth and vitality and message of embracing and celebrating who you are.
* * *
If you tell me your story, I will tell you mine.