There’s an episode of This American Life that features David Rakoff just before he died (here’s a link). It was a live, theatrical version of the radio show in which the witty author, in his trademark biting tongue and powerful vocabulary, hilariously explained how he got by doing basic tasks after cancer took the use of one of his arms. I have mentioned this clip before because it is powerful. In it he describes dreaming of dancing, of ability that eludes him. He describes what disease has taken and what dreams return to him. He talks about the freedom of bodies flowing and dancing in the wind. He talks about how in dreams anything is possible.
Then, he dances.
He dances to Nat King Cole’s version of the song “What’ll I Do.” It’s a sad song lamenting that powerful feeling of emptiness that often strikes when love is lost. For Rakoff though, it seemed to mean something else. It seemed to be about a personal loss of another kind. I love that song, I love the melody and the soothing, empathetic voice. I can’t hear it without seeing David Rakoff moving so beautifully. I also can’t hear it without seeing myself, without putting myself and my loss of perfect health in those lyrics. I used to just sit and listen to it, on repeat, over and over until my phone died. I’d just listen, hoping by the end he’d answer the question. What will I do when all I know and love changes? What will I do without you, but even more pressing, without part of me?
The other day I got a beautiful email from an old friend from college in which she shared an Alabama Shakes song with me called “Hold On.” She told me she was jamming out to it and thinking of me, and being that I haven’t “jammed out” in quite some time I thought if she cared enough to send this to me I better make good use of it. I played it and began to dance around my room. I began to feel my body move in a way it hadn’t in quite some time. I slowly became less reserved thinking to myself that the dog probably wouldn’t judge my dancing that hard. I did catch my dancing in the mirror, it was a bit rough.
I played the song a few times and then let the shuffle mode on the phone take over.
Within seconds the melody changed. There it was, that familiar piano music leading me into a comforting voice.
What’ll I do when you are far away, and I’m so blue…
My movements became less frenetic, the smooth melody seeming to trigger the muscle memory in a body that had changed. I swayed with his voice, thinking not of sadness but of joy.
What’ll I do when you are gone away?
Everything in my life as of late has changed, shifting powerfully and yet, though all of who I was and who I know has changed or perhaps gone away, it has opened me up to reinvent. I can be new, I can be brave, I can be me.
I can be happy, or at very least I can be my most authentic self, approximating something like happiness, flowing free in the moment while Nat King Cole sings my troubles away.
I don’t know what I’ll do with just dreams of who I used to be and potential ideas of where I’ll land. I don’t know. I do know that I have stopped searching those tender lyrics for the answer. I also know that if you need me, I’ll be dancing my way through.
Peace and love,