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I was in a cafe on Lincoln Boulevard on a Sunday morning. I come here often, most weekends in fact, for the way the light creeps in, the smell of warm bread wafting from industrial ovens, the desert plants that sit in pots outside. Families with small children come here. Men and women sit at tables discussing business. Dogs lounge outside under their owners feet hoping for scraps to fall. Baristas bustle around preparing coffee. Outside traffic flows past. Underpinning the hum of these things all layered together is music that wafts from the speakers overhead. That Sunday, I blinked and looked around as a song played that I knew but, for a moment, could not place. Music and association.

The songs we hear so often blur into the backgrounds of our lives. They foreshadow, enlighten, and comfort. They remind us who we are, where we are, and sometimes if we are lucky why we are. It was “Phantom Limb” by the Shins playing. We wandered through her mama’s house, And the milk from the window lights, Family portraits circa ninety-five, This is that foreign land. I smiled to myself, pointed above my head at the person I was sitting with and murmured, “This song.” They smiled back with confusion and little recognition, but I barely noticed. Music and amnesia.

I used to walk around my hometown in the rain listening to this song. I was in love with other things and other people then. I had a different playlist. After leaving those things and those people it seemed only right to tuck away the songs I used to listen to as well. Sometimes they made me too sad to look forward. Music and nostalgia.

That Sunday in the cafe, though, I didn’t feel sad listening to that old song. When I got into my car I searched for the album Wincing the Night Away on my phone and listened to it all the way back to my apartment. It was no longer a source of pain or sadness. It brought old people to mind, conversations that I had forgotten having, hours wasted away in cars or bedrooms or hallways. And listening to old songs in new places breathes new life into music again. Now when I hear that song there are layers to my associations with it. Ever since that Sunday I have been looking back through old music. Some songs still have to be tucked away, filed in old playlists or put back on the record stand until I am ready. But I have realized that I am ready to embrace some of what I moved on from. Songs are not stagnant. The music we listen to can be reframed by new contexts. Sometimes there is nothing more frightening; sometimes there is nothing more comforting. Music and memory.

Featured Photo by Megan Loreto

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