what james taylor means to me

I.

I am eleven years old, dancing around the kitchen with my mom, listening to my parents’ old CDs. It is a Sunday afternoon and I am helping her make banana bread from scratch. My mom is a terrific baker, and I have inherited a love of baking from her. We have turned our giant three-CD stereo onto “shuffle” mode. There is one singer that I especially like. His voice is smooth and filled with emotion, and his lyrics sound like poetry, and the acoustic guitar makes me feel peaceful. “Who is that?” I ask my mom, as the man sings a lullaby about a sweet baby.

“That’s James Taylor,” she says.

“I like his music,” I declare. Up to this point, my musical tastes have existed on a decidedly separate plane from my parents’ music. My CD collection includes Mandy Moore, The Spice Girls, and N’SYNC. Now, I add James Taylor to the list.

The smell of banana bread baking in the oven mingles with the sound of James’ crooning. I come to associate his songs with the warm feelings of childhood and family and comfort. In a word: home.

II.

I am fifteen years old, on the bus to an away game with my basketball team. I always get supremely nervous before games, worried that I’m going to screw up, make a mistake, get yelled at by my coach. The entire day at school, I have been dreading this afternoon’s game. To calm myself down, I pull my portable CD player out of my backpack, slip on the headphones, and press PLAY.

James Taylor’s rich voice fills my ears, reminding me that I’ve got a friend, no matter what happens.

I don’t know anyone else at my school who likes James Taylor’s music. He feels like my own special secret. When I feel lost or self-conscious or alone, his music reminds me that this period of my life won’t last forever.¬†Listening to his music reminds me of the wider, richer world out there beyond the confines of high school—and certainly beyond high school basketball games.

My favorite part of away basketball games is listening to his CD on the bus ride there and back home again.

{source}

III.

I am sixteen years old. James Taylor releases a new album at the same time I am going through a tough time with some friends at school. New music from him feels like a gift from the universe. Even better, many of his songs are about autumn—my favorite season. The magic of autumn is amplified by the beauty of his voice. I listen to “September Grass” and “October Road” on repeat. I imagine one day meeting a boy who loves and appreciates James Taylor as much as I do—who, in turn, recognizes my beauty and uniqueness the way none of the boys at school seem to.

Dad surprises me with tickets to see James Taylor in concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl. I am the youngest one there by at least a decade, maybe two. But I don’t care. I feel like James is singing directly to me. He plays for more than two hours and his voice sounds even better and richer than it does on the CDs I’ve memorized by heart.

It has been one of the hardest and saddest seasons of my life up to this point, but sitting at that concert next to my dad, feeling the breeze on my face and watching my favorite musician light up the night with his beautiful music, I feel hope burgeoning inside me. I am going to be okay. I am going to move on and find new friends. Life is going to expand and keep getting better. I feel sure of it.

IV.

I am a freshman in college, and life has expanded greatly. My world has gotten wider and fuller and more exciting. I have made many new friends and every day, I am soaking up new knowledge and new experiences.

Still, sometimes I feel lonely or stressed or homesick. So much newness can be overwhelming. Whenever that happens, I click over to my James Taylor iTunes playlist. His music makes me feel like I can close my eyes and be transported back to the kitchen with my mom, baking banana bread, dancing around with my silly dog Gar—like I can be my child-self again, even for just the span of a song.

 

V.

I am in graduate school now, living halfway across the country from everything I have known. Here in Indiana, the autumn is more beautiful than any I have experienced. The reds and oranges and yellows explode from the trees, and the sky is crisp and blue. My favorite season should feel more magical than ever.

But it doesn’t. I am lonelier than I have ever been. Most people in my program are married or coupled-up, and I am the youngest one. I feel so single and so naive. As hard as I try to make friends, the close bonds I forged easily in college seem elusive here. I try throwing a party, but it is only mildly successful. The weekends stretch out interminably; the highlight is going shopping at the grocery store.

I get a lot of writing and reading done. The leaves begin to fall from the trees. The weather turns grayer and colder.

I turn on the heater in my little apartment. I bake banana bread. I play James Taylor’s music and feel a teeny bit more at home, a teeny bit less alone. His songs are my touchstone.

VI.

I am twenty-six years old, living back in California. Northern California this time, the Bay Area. I am living with my grandparents and I make friends and I am not lonely. But I am still searching for a partner to share my life with. I listen to James Taylor’s songs—“Something in the Way She Moves” and “Your Smiling Face“—and I feel hopeful that I will find the person I am meant to be with. I think back to high school, when I felt like the only person my age who liked James Taylor. Now, I’ve met quite a few people from my generation who enjoy his music—Taylor Swift {who, I’ve learned, was named for James Taylor} even has a line about his records in one of her songs!

I join an online dating website. On a blustery February evening, I meet up with “Oaktown A’s Fan” at an ice cream shop. He is even more handsome in person than in his profile picture. He has kind eyes and listens to me intently, asks questions and makes me laugh. Quite suddenly, and easily, and wonderfully, we fall in love. Before long, I know that he is the one I want to spend my life with.

Allyn is a very agreeable and open person. When it comes to food or movies or music, he likes pretty much anything.

Almost anything.

“James Taylor?” he says. “I’m not a fan.”

I think at first that he’s joking—teasing me, pulling my leg. But he is completely serious. James Taylor’s music… annoys him.

“I don’t know, something about his voice gets on my nerves,” Allyn explains when I ask, in wide-mouthed astonishment, how he possibly can dislike my favorite musician of all time. “His music puts me to sleep.”

I guess nobody—not even my perfect guy—is perfect. ūüėČ

When Allyn lets me listen to James Taylor on our road trips, I know he truly loves me.

 

VII.

C√©line, one of my best friends, dies in a car accident. I never really understood “Fire and Rain” until now.

Even two and a half years later, I still can’t believe I’m not going to see her again.

VIII.

Dad flies into Oakland and we take BART together into San Francisco. James Taylor is playing a concert at AT&T Park and we bought tickets for our birthday presents to each other. I can’t think of a better way to ring in my third decade on this planet.

We spend the day wandering around the city: exploring the market at the Ferry Building, taking the trolley down to Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch, finding a hole-in-the-wall Irish pub for drinks. As the sun begins to set, we walk down to the concert. My whole being is filled with anticipation.

The stadium is packed, yet somehow his music makes it feel intimate. He tells stories between the songs and plays video footage of his adorable dog. He plays many of his old classics, and some of his new songs, including my favorite off his latest album: “Montana.” Tears come to my eyes when he plays “Fire and Rain.” He saves my favorite, “You’ve Got a Friend,” for the encore.

After the concert, walking back to our hotel, Dad and I are still reveling in the joy and grace of James Taylor’s music. I think about the last time I saw James Taylor play, when I was sixteen. How much has changed since then. And also how much has remained the same.

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” — James Taylor, “Secret O’Life

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “free-write” about the following questions:

  • Who is a musician that has impacted your life? How so?
  • Turn on one of your favorite albums. Write about various memories each song brings up.
  • What is the last concert you went to? Write about the experience.
  • What musicians or songs have been a comfort to you during hard times?

why i don’t care about being “cool”

When you work with kids, like I do, they have a way of keeping you pretty dang humble.

Like last week. I was teaching a lesson with two young students who moved to the U.S. recently from Taiwan, and are ESL {English as a Second Language} learners. I was guiding them through a reading comprehension activity I developed, based on my children’s book There’s a Huge Pimple On My Nose!¬†Usually, the kids reading this story know what a pimple is, but “pimple” was a new word for these two students.

“It’s a bump you get on your skin,” I explained to them. “Like a mosquito bite, but smaller. Then it goes away on its own. Usually when you’re a teenager is when you start getting pimples.”

The girl pointed to my face. “Like what you have on your chin?” she asked.

I laughed. “Yep, like what I have on my chin. Adults get pimples, too!”

Later that same day, I was leading a writing lesson with two third-graders. We were talking about brainstorming strategies and how, when you feel stuck or are struggling with writer’s block, it can help to write down every single idea that pops into your mind, no matter how silly or off-topic it might seem.

“Writer’s block happens to everyone,” I told them. “Even professional writers get stuck sometimes. I’ve been writing for twenty years and I still get writer’s block! All you can do is keep trying your best and don’t give up.”

“Wait–you’re a writer?” the boy asked. “Like, do you write books?”

“Yep,” I said, thinking maybe I was earning “cool points” in the eyes of my students.

“Then how come I’ve never heard of you?” he asked innocently.

“Well, I’m not famous yet,” I said, shaking off my stung pride. Elementary schoolers, man. They can be tough!

{But then sometimes they make you feel like a million bucks!}

I remember a time in my life when I cared about being “cool.” Back in middle school and high school, I definitely paid attention to the trends and tried to stay on top of things. I used to straighten my wavy hair when I wanted to feel “pretty” because shiny, stick-straight hair was the coveted kind. {Now my hair is naturally straighter, and—guess what? I miss my waves.} I remember using babysitting money to buy face glitter {I really think that’s what it was—not eyeshadow, but glitter for all over your face, because we were ridiculous like that in the late 90s} and the honeydew-melon spray from Bath & Body Works, which was THE popular scent in my middle school locker room. To complicate things further, the guidelines for what was “cool” sometimes contradicted each other. On the cross-country team, high running shorts and low invisible socks were the “cool” uniform; but on the basketball team, baggy shorts and high socks were in. I played both of these sports in high school. Usually the seasons were at separate times of the year, so coordinating my outfit wasn’t a problem… except for during the summer, when I had both basketball AND cross-country practices. I remember running into the bathroom to change my shorts and socks, slipping from one practice to the next—knowing that I would feel like everyone was looking at me funny if I showed up to cross-country with high socks and baggy shorts, or to basketball with short-shorts and low socks.

As I type this out now, it seems so silly. But at the time, it felt so important.

It wasn’t that I felt like being cool was the most important thing. I cared more about being kind, and curious, and thoughtful, and respected. I cared about being a good friend and a good sister and a good daughter. I cared about learning and growing and striving for my dreams.

But I also cared about being “cool.” I wanted to fit in. I wanted boys to like me.

When I think about that thirteen-year-old girl, peering critically into the mirror and wielding a straightening iron, I want to take her hands in mine and kiss her on the forehead and tell her, You are perfect just the way you are. There is no way you can make yourself any more beautiful than you already are, right this moment. You are exactly, wonderfully enough.  

When I went to college, my world opened up. What had been deemed irrevocably cool at my school had not necessarily been cool at someone else’s high school. I remember sitting around one afternoon with my college friends, going through our high school yearbooks. Looking through the line-ups of senior portraits, none of us were able to pick out who had been in the popular crowd at each other’s schools. It was such a strange, liberating realization. Those old rules didn’t apply anymore. Perhaps they never really had. We had been in small fishbowls, but now we were in the wide-open ocean. There was so much more room here. So much more life and light and color.

I began paying less and less attention to what the outside world marked as “cool” and more and more attention to what I liked, what made me happy, what made me comfortable. It didn’t really matter what someone else said was cool. What did I think was cool? I began to listen to that voice inside me, instead of the voices outside myself. I let my hair air-dry, wavy and natural. I wore tennis shoes. I listened to country music. {Holly and I loved Taylor Swift back in her early, first-album days, when our other roommates thought she was lame.}

I learned that true coolness isn’t about following someone else’s list of rules. It’s about being happy in your own skin and being joyful in your own life. That is what gives you the sparkle. That is what other people are drawn to. Not your face glitter. Not your high socks. Not your honeydew-melon body spray or perfectly straightened hair. It’s your… you-ness. Your confidence and contentment. It happens when you embrace the knowledge that you are the only person in human history who will ever be exactly like you, living your unique and beautiful life. Why try to cram that life into a one-size-fits-all box?

It’s probably not surprising that once I stopped trying to be cool, I became cooler. Boys asked me out on dates, tennis shoes and all.

At my wedding, I put on my tennis shoes and compression socks for the reception, because I wanted to dance my heart out and I wanted to be comfortable doing it. For most of the reception, they were hidden under my floor-length dress. But one of my favorite photos is of Allyn removing my garter for the garter toss. My shoes and compression socks are on full display. Our friends and family who were gathered around loved it. I felt like the coolest bride in the universe.

These days, when I think about how I want to be remembered, I don’t care one iota about being cool. I want to be remembered as someone who lived her life boldly, and freely, and generously, and gratefully. I want to be remembered as someone who spoke her truth, wrote about things that mattered, and loved others with all her heart. I want to be remembered for how I made people feel: encouraged and inspired and cared for and confident.

When my students grow up, I want them to remember their writing teacher Miss Dallas—yes, Miss Dallas with the pimple on her chin and no bestselling books to her name—as someone who believed in them and in their dreams. I want them to remember Miss Dallas as a teacher who made them feel empowered to express their wonderful, complicated, messy, hilarious, impossible ideas down on paper, and to actually have a bit of fun doing it. I want them to remember Miss Dallas as someone who always let them know how proud she was of them, and who taught them to be proud of themselves.

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer, and use the following questions as jumping-off points:

  • What was “cool” when you were growing up? Did you feel pressured to be “cool”?
  • Write about a time you felt distinctly uncool. What happened? How did you react to the experience?
  • How do you want to be remembered?

my piece is on thought catalog!

Hi everyone! Just poppin’ in this morning to share some exciting news with you: I wrote a piece that is up on Thought Catalog! My short essay is¬†about my high school drama class, life’s transience, firsts and lasts. You can read it here.

If you enjoy it, I’d be super grateful if you share it on Facebook, pass it along to your friends, and/or comment at the bottom!

thought catalog essay

Have a masterpiece day!