Time Immemorial: Music, Endurance, Choice

Trauma and neglect make for a strange sense of time for adults and, most certainly, for young children. Not only because the brain areas most affected and highjacked by overwhelming experience don’t register time. But also because something about pain and emptiness seems both endless and ephemeral. Also, when events are redundant or unchanging, memory can blur it all into oblivion or doubtful existence. Much of my life seems to have had that quality, and even now, in my advancing age, I am surprised by memory, usually leading with emotion or body feeling that may not have occurred to me in 50 or 60 years of counting or wrestling with time. 

I recently had the privilege of participating in a 24-hour continuous, unbroken “Circlesong,” with the legendary Bobby McFerrin. I have written a bit about Bobby before. He is, in spite of his slight (and perhaps shrinking) frame, a larger-than-life musical wonder, part man, part musical instrument. The multiplicity of sound he creates with both voice and body is awe-inspiring. The Circlesong is usually a capela call and response, mostly improvised and usually wordless, not unlike the sacred chants of many cultures. And it seems to similarly evoke altered states of consciousness. I found a few recordings on Youtube that I listened to again and again at home, and I went once to his one-hour weekly Circlesong presentation at a small venue in Berkeley. He generally shares the stage with a group of seasoned compatriots and invites brave members of the audience to come up and lead as well. 

I was excited to find the announcement of his weeklong Circlesong School here in San Francisco, although a week was more than I could take on. However, the week culminated in the 24-hour “Unbroken” finale, which I thought would be a brain-changing and amazing new experience. Although I could not tempt my husband or friends to join me, I decided to go for it.  It was indeed brain-changing, but not in the ways I had imagined.

The organizers recommended bringing blankets and pillows, and food, I did not imagine I would need those, being something of an aesthete by nature and definitely a struggling insomniac. But I did as I was told. And as the time approached, I found myself exploding with odd butterflies of, was it fear or excitement? Seemed like both. I was beside myself to the point that when my husband was driving me to drop me off, I wildly opened the door of our moving car to lean and call out to a friend I spotted walking down the street (who wasn’t even who I thought he was!) Scared (and baffled) the wits out of my husband, who was driving!)

The venue was the elegant and iconic Grace Cathedral, a Catholic church dating back to the 1849 California Gold Rush days, and now known for being a progressive host for many humanitarian and cultural causes. I had been there before, but not in many years, the last time being 2013 for a reading of Michael Pollan’s then-new, now-classic Cooked. He has become a trailblazer in other ways since then. It is a beautiful old building with high echoey ceilings, lots of marble and dark wood, and elaborate stained glass. Arriving early, I staked out my spot close to the front, as I always do everywhere, so that I could see and hear everything.

It was a lively, eclectic crowd of all ages, races, and types. Perhaps most of them were wearing the arm wristbands that identified them as attendees of the weeklong school event; many of them appeared to be “real” musicians and singers, unlike me. Although I grew up in a musical home and have always swum in a sea of music, and I can say there is always a song in my head, and often on my lips, I claim no formal identification. The singing began, and for a long time, my eyes closed, and my body moving, I was swept. 

Around three hours in, there was a kind of “shift change.” People with children scooped up their (mostly sleeping) little ones, and many adults slipped out, including Bobby, who is not young and not well. And the others of his team gathered the remaining 150 or so of us forward so we were in a closer, tighter circle.

 As we edged into the fourth hour, I began to notice a change in myself. Unaccustomed to singing non-stop for hours on end, my voice was fading, I had a harder time finding the note I could hit. Sitting under the speaker began to wear on my ears. The hard wooden chair was beginning to grind into my back and butt, and I huddled my two woolen blankets around me. I had to admit, gulp, I was getting tired.

That was when I began to notice I was starting to mark the crawl of time. And memories started to appear, like puffs of smoke, scenes I had not remembered in years. I remember the glacial creep of time when I was anorexic and in a vortex of emptiness. I would watch the clock strain second by second, registering the time that “would have been lunchtime” or the time that “would have been dinner time,” clocking them like the mileage markers on a long agonizing hill. So interminably slowly, it was impossible to think of anything else. 

Another flashbulb memory, again I had not thought of in perhaps 5 decades, of being in a Catholic church, perhaps one of the only times I had been before. We were staying with some family friends for a weekend at their cabin in Bodega Bay, the coastal town famous as the location for Alfred Hitchcock’s memorable and terrifying classic, The Birds. We had a few family friends that were Catholic, and these were. I opted to go to mass for my first time and do “what the Romans do,” take communion. The hard wooden benches here at Grace reminded me of kneeling on the hard oak benches back then, in the throes of anorexia, my head beginning to spin. I was weak and wobbly, and again, waiting for the time to interminably end. It didn’t before I fainted dead away. That is all I remember.

I remembered years of depression, knowing that a “watched pot never boils,” but unable to do anything but watch the clock crawl. Running marathon distances in the dark, the 200 mile-in-a-day bicycle rides, things that were supposed to be fun, that were feats of endurance. Neglect is an endurance sport. I knew I could out-endure anyone at anything, and that was perhaps my one dubious talent. As I felt the chill of the high-ceilinged church seep into my depths, I noticed the music was not warming me anymore. I was freezing. And I was having all of these long-forgotten, unbidden memories because I was slipping back into marking time. 

When I realized it wasn’t fun anymore. I remembered what I always say, “I am so grateful and glad we live indoors!” I have the privilege of choice about being this cold. I wanted to go home. But what would I tell everyone? I would be “letting everyone down,” and my limitless endurance was failing me. Had it passed its shelf life? By now, I had completed 12 hours, half of the promised 24. It was 7:00 AM. I called my husband to come and pick me up, so grateful that now I have a choice.

Imagining an infant, alone in the crib, in the dark. There is no one there; the cries float like smoke up toward the ceiling, and no one comes. They have no impact; no one sees or hears or registers their loneliness, their despair, their deathly terror. Attachment is a survival need, the human infant remaining dependent longer than perhaps any other mammal. Time is an endless, Sisyphean effort. The brain freezes, and under-firing becomes its default mode, as does a voiceless, impactless collapse. Attention blurs, quicksand. This is how the life of neglect begins.

What a blessing to have a choice. The Circlesong was a wonderful catalyst, but not the way I imagined it would be. Thanks for the music, Bobby! And thanks to all this healing, for having not only a home to go to but a choice.

Today’s song:


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