Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Fairytale of Sydney- A New Year’s Eve Reflection

Getting through Christmas season is always an adventure. It’s that time of year when time just flows a bit differently. Some years I get this crazy itch to go home. Many years I take some kind of exotic trip. On rare occasions I just stay home.

This year I decided to see what my own city of Sydney had to offer.

I spent three days walking the city, seeing the sites, visiting my favorite pub for a sing-a-long, and reflecting on my life, the state of the world, and where things were going.

Like many people I suspect, sometimes I get a song stuck in my head that follows me around for a few days or even weeks. Often this song becomes part of the “soundtrack” for whatever experiences I’m having at the time.

I recently learned that the most popular Christmas song in the UK is “The Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues. For those that might not be familiar with this song, it’s about a couple of drunks looking back on their lives and their lost dreams while also remembering when things were good. It’s not exactly the most “feel good” song, and it’s a little surprising it’s become such a popular Christmas song. Maybe people recognize it as being a little closer to real life than other Christmas songs. Who knows? But I must admit I became a fan this year and have sort of had the song on repeat these last couple of weeks.

A sad footnote to the story was that the lead singer of The Pogues, Shane
MacGowan, died this year not long before Christmas. Much like the hero of his Christmas song, Shane lived life hard and fast. His death kind of seemed like the end of something to me. I got the same feeling when Kurt Cobain died in 1994. Like an age was coming to an end. The Pogues were dirty, gritty, and cool. And at the risk of sounding like an old man shaking his rake in the air, they don’t really make music like that anymore. A lot of history’s most influential musicians have died in the last few years or are on their last laps. Like I say, it felt like the end of something to me.

But as for this the song, one particular lyric stood out to me.

‘It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, 
won't see another one’

Now look, I’m not trying to get morbid here, but when I heard that lyric, I thought back on the past year and all of the friends I had lost since last Christmas. Many likely had no idea they “wouldn’t see another one” at the time, I’m quite certain of that.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this. For those of us that have lost friends, particularly at a young age, it all seems kind of surreal when it happens. Freud once said the two biggest mistakes people make are thinking illness and disease won’t happen to them and thinking they have an unlimited amount of time.

So as I was walking around Christmas night, I was thinking about all of this and the fact that for some of us, this WILL be our last Christmas. It was a sobering thought and as I was walking the streets I reflected about what that meant. If we know this to be true, I mean we REALLY know it to be true, what should we do with this information? Call our friends and family and tell them we love them? Take a trip to some exotic place we’ve always wanted to go? Focus more on our health? Quit our jobs and hit the road?

As I was thinking these thoughts, I heard music and followed the sound. I realized I was at Martin Place, where Sydney’s biggest and brightest Christmas tree stood proudly. It was Christmas night around 9 PM and I assumed most people’s Christmas was over by now.

But I assumed wrong.

There was a huge crowd of people around the tree. There was a singer belting out Christmas songs, and people were loudly singing along. Others were taking pictures in front of the tree and laughing and dancing.

But all I heard in MY head was the Fairytale of New York,

'You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing Galway Bay
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day’

It was the happy part of the song when things were good. That was the vibe at the tree that night. These people were joyful and happy and completely in the moment.

It was a lovely place to be. Some of these people were probably having the best Christmas of their lives. Making memories that they would remember forever.

And man was that feeling contagious. It made me realize that, although my earlier thoughts were that it would be the last Christmas for some people, that didn’t mean life stopped happening.

And more than that, it made me realize that not only was that a pleasant alternative, it was actually the point. We need to live as much as possible, because time was fleeting.

 As Emily Dickenson said,

That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.

And after that, I bought myself some Hot Chocolate and joined in with the singing. I might have 50 Christmases’ left or I might have one. I didn’t have much control over that.

But I sure as hell could enjoy this Christmas. This moment.

That was in my control.

So in the end, I had my little “Fairytale of Sydney.”

And to all the people I’ve lost this year, thank you for sharing some of your time with me. I won’t forget the gift. You’ve helped me realize that we don’t get unlimited time and I need to use mine as richly and authentically and as passionately as I possibly can.

Happy New Year everyone.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Saudade and updating your personal soundtrack


This has been an interesting year for me. After all those stifling Covid years, I must admit I got the travel bug again. They are calling it “revenge” travel. Not sure who I’m getting revenge on though? Society? The Man? Either way, I’m here for it. I’ve been back to Chicago, been to Vietnam twice, and am going to Thailand next month. All sounds great, right?

The thing is, funny stuff sometimes happens when we travel that people never talk about. There’s a feeling of displacement. A loneliness. A desire to be back home amongst one’s things. Psychologists have done a little research on this phenomenon. People have strong needs for both belonging and connection, and sometimes these things don’t come easy when you’re a stranger in a strange land.

I recently had one of these strange moments while lying on a beach in Vietnam. It should have been a perfect moment, but like many people do with perfect moments these days, I ruined it by picking up my phone. While scrolling, I saw that Jimmy Buffett had died.  I felt an incredible sadness, but also something a little more complicated than that.

I was a huge fan of Buffett when I was younger. For a few years there (my twenties for instance) I practically WAS Jimmy Buffett. The whole vibe of traveling around, drinking Margaritas, and exploring new places fit my lifestyle perfectly. His music was the soundtrack of my 20’s and 30’s, and I have a million memories of that time of my life.  But more recently? Not as much. So why was I hit with such a powerful wave of emotion?

In thinking about this, I thought about a fascinating word in Portuguese called “Saudade.” A loose definition of the word is, “An emotional state of melancholic or profoundly nostalgic longing for a beloved yet absent something or someone. It is often associated with a repressed understanding that one might never encounter the object of longing ever again.”

And I think I got it. Of course it’s sad when someone that has brought a lot of great music and joy has passed. But somehow it’s also more than that. We also miss that time and that place in our own lives. Who we were back then. The fun we had. Perhaps how carefree and bold we were. The friends we had. Our youth. Our vitality.

So it’s not just remembering the music and the band that creates these nostalgia pains. It’s how we used to feel about things. The passion. The excitement. I remember getting ready for “Monsters of Rock,” my first concert and one of my first overnight trips with friends.

And when I held up my lighter when The Scorpions sang, “Winds of Change”? Man, I didn’t think any moment could ever possibly top that.

And that’s the part I think we miss. As Sam Ewing once said, “When you finally go back to your old home, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood.” And I think some of the same concept applies. The “pain” from nostalgia comes from the idea that we can never replicate that time and that place again. The Welsh also have a great word for this called “Hiraeth.” Loosely translated to, “A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home that maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for lost places in your past”

And I was having all these thoughts, I took a look around me. I thought about how the 18-year old me would feel about sitting on a gorgeous beach in Vietnam drinking a cold beer while sitting in a hammock.

And that’s the moment I stopped feeling so sad and started feeling something else. In grief counselling we call this “integration.” Like, I can remember someone I’ve lost and feel not just sadness but also some happiness remembering the good times we had and all the positive ways that person had affected my life. It’s an important step in the grieving process, but perhaps also a way of reconciling our feelings about those memories from our past. It’s okay to miss something or someone and be sad about it, but also good to give some equal time to the good parts.

So with a smile this time, I opened my phone and cued up a video by Jimmy Buffett. Not one of his main songs like Margaritaville, but one on my old favourites called "They Don’t Dance Like Carmen No More." A song about Jimmy himself lamenting how they don’t make music like they did in the good old days.

 The irony was not lost on me.

And as I sat there, I also came to a different realization. It’s always within our power to find new songs, experiences, and people that will continue to make up the soundtrack of our lives. It’s not over. As long as we are drawing breath, we still have the chance to do that.

So by the time I rolled out of that hammock, I was already planning my next adventure. Figuring out what’s going to go on to my next mixed tape.

So anyway, RIP Jimmy. You're gone but not forgotten. Music is pretty immortal like that.

But for the next little while, I’ll be looking for some new sounds. As a wise person once said, “Embrace uncertainty, some of the best chapters of your life won’t have a title until much later.” One day in the future, I will undoubtedly look back wistfully at that moment lying on a beautiful beach in Vietnam. It’s something we always forget.

Some day we will miss today as well.

And me? I’ll try and find the dance floor. They definitely don’t dance like Carmen no more. They don’t even dance like they did at my first Monsters of Rock concert.

But somehow I think I’ll still figure it out. 

Monday, April 10, 2023

Kyrie Eleison (An Easter essay about Kangaroos, cars and self-forgiveness)

For years I have tried to make a point to write an essay around Easter time. It’s not for religious reasons or anything like that. It’s just, Easter always signified the beginning of spring for me in the US. The end of a long winter. And perhaps more than that, a chance to clear the slate and find a sense of renewal.

That’s what the Easter holiday seemed to be about to me. Forgiveness and starting over. The “Kyrie” as a Catholic kid meant “lord have mercy.” You confess your sins and then you get forgiven and get the chance to do better. Although I’ve dropped the religion, I never really dropped the lesson.

And as a child of the 80’s, the song “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister was also quite popular at the time. I have always held the phrase in my mind. Kyrie Eleison.

  The lyrics of the song went like this.

‘When I was young, I thought of growing old
Of what my life would mean to me
Would I have followed down my chosen road
Or only wished what I could be?

Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel
Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night
Kyrie eleison where I'm going, will you follow?
Kyrie eleison on a highway in the night’

So why am I telling you this?

As it so happens, I was driving on a dark, Australian, ocean road the other night and this song came on. I started belting it out as loud as I could. My own little carpool Karaoke.

And then I saw it. A huge Kangaroo directly in the middle of the road that didn’t seem inclined to move.

Lord have mercy.

I swerved at the last minute and narrowly avoided killing both the Kangaroo and myself. It was just one of those lucky things.

At least I think it was lucky. I’m not ruling out it was something else.

As I say, I’m not the religious type anymore, and it’s not the point of this essay to get into why. Spirituality is a complicated thing in a person’s life.

But I still believe in the message of Easter. Forgiveness. Atonement. Renewal, Starting over.

And I can tell you, when I pulled over to the side of the road in that moment, I thought about all of those things. It wasn’t exactly a “near-death” experience, but things could have certainly gone badly there. I briefly pictured the headline. “American psychologist tragically dies in Kangaroo encounter.”

Not exactly the way I wanted to go.

But as with anything, I also wanted to think about the lesson. I often talk to my clients about releasing themselves from shame and guilt through the act of self-forgiveness. Learning to accept they are human and sometimes are going to say and do things they are going to regret. Personally I have a “greatest hits" list of these things that likes to play when I am trying to sleep in the middle of the night. I think many of us have such a playlist.

So this Easter, I vow to practice this self-forgiveness. To let things go. To give myself this sense of renewal.

Sure it took an 80’s song and a Kangaroo to remind me, but better late than never.

So in closing I will leave you with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda-

"How long are you going to keep carrying that one conversation in your heart?
The one where you said or did the exact wrong thing?
 It's DONE. Nothing left but to learn. Drag it to the trash file. Click 'empty trash'

Yes, you're sure.

Free up that heart of yours."

Amen to that.

And Kyrie Eliison on the road that you must travel.