My latest guest post comes from nonfiction author, Tucker Lieberman. He gives a unique take on handling a crisis, with some unexpected results. At the end of the post, you will find Tucker’s curated list of songs that walked him through his journey of change.

Crisis: A Playlist

by Tucker Lieberman

I am having a crisis. The details matter to no one but me, and I intend to process them privately. I put on my headphones and go out for a walk so I can think.

I listen to “Earth Cry Mercy” by Michael Gettel and “Cycle” by Beck. At only slightly more than one beat per second, the instrumentals seem to mirror the pace of the autumn leaves spinning, the droplets of water shimmering, the worms and turtles burrowing, the earth trembling. In my imagination, there are stories that go with these songs: a tomb opens, a capsized ship rights itself, a dead man resurrects, and people who have missed each other reunite.

My body is round and heavy. It is hard for me to move my hips. But I go out for a walk every day with this music. It feels good to walk outdoors: the physical exercise, the clearing of the mind. After I go back inside, I maintain better focus for a while. So, I begin finding time to walk more frequently. Twice, maybe three times a day, I make a habit of bringing the headphones so I can listen to the music, follow my imagination, and loosen what is emotionally clogged. My body feels less and less like a constraint on my feelings and movements. Now I perceive my body as inherent to my feelings and as enabling my movements.

Soon, the slow songs are holding me back. Now that I’ve ruminated on my crisis over and over, I can flash through my memories faster. As I process my thoughts more rapidly, I need faster music to pick up the pace. The music approaches one-and-a-half beats per second. I listen to Ray Charles singing “Georgia on my Mind.” I have got things on my mind, too. Wistful memories cling to me. Mr. Mister sings “Kyrie” which is another type of prayer—less pensive, more exultant—insisting that there is a road to be traveled. The singer feels he has no choice in the matter, but he would like to feel accompanied and supported in his journey.

There’s a number of other songs on the way to two beats per second: “Water Under the Bridge” by Adele, “Chocolate” by The 1975, “Something Just Like This” by the Chainsmokers, and “Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car” by Billy Ocean. All of these are about pining and not wanting to quit. “Chocolate” is about drugs, but the rest are about wanting to start or resume a romance. The last two even suggest that the romance has a mythical quality despite being firmly grounded in the real world. These songs appeal to me because of the tenacity of my personal crisis. It doesn’t quit, and I have an intensifying relationship with it. My crisis is a kind of frenemy to me.

I need faster music. After passing two beats per second, there’s Survivor’s “High On You,” Noah Gundersen’s “The Sound,” and Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance,” all of which revel in their own speed and the sensation of the dance. Similarly, when I listen to Van Halen’s “Jump” or “Invisible Touch” by Genesis, mostly what I have is cheerful exercise music. I realize I am exerting my body, and I am sustaining a pace.

I’m no longer walking. I’m running. I couldn’t run before. Something has changed in my mind and body.

Peter, Paul and Mary’s hypothetical “If I Had My Way” is more complex, conjuring prophetic visions and proposing what one would do with one’s outrage, given enough firepower or nihilism to assure successful resistance. Rye Rye’s “Boom Boom” suggests that, even without being a prophet and merely having feelings about another person, one could still somehow manage to blow up the world. Or at least the bedroom. Maybe it is my world or my bedroom that is blown up. This crisis. Boom.

The Charlie Daniels Band has an elaborate story in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in which a young man bets the devil that he can play a meaner fiddle. Debbie Gibson has a much simpler aspiration in “We Could Be Together,” swearing only that she’ll sit by the telephone waiting for it to ring. These songs have little in common except that they play at identical speeds.

My playlist is arranged so that I can gather speed. Approaching two-and-a-half beats per second, I am accompanying Bruce Springsteen on his “Born to Run” journey, imagining the “suicide machines” to which he refers, the quest I’d have to be on to ride them, and who would come with me. Kelly Clarkson’s “Heartbeat Song” feels less intense but is keeping the pace “all night long,” as she says. I might be running at night.

Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj belt out “Bang Bang,” which, in my fantasy, is about facing gunfire. I think they sound brave. To me, the song tells a story about being prepared for a mortally perilous moment and feeling sassy about it after the fact. I can’t think of a word for that emotion in English or in any other language. Queen mellows out with “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” At this point, I place much emphasis on the word “crazy,” because I would not be running this far if I were entirely sane.

John Travolta’s “Greased Lightnin’” tells a story of refurbishing an automobile. The image is clear if you remember the musical “Grease.” Journey’s “Oh Sherrie” and the Romantics’ “What I Like About You” are also songs of affection, but toward a person rather than a car.

Speaking of things that are refurbished, these days I feel less round, less heavy. It is easier for me to move quickly.

We are now beyond two-and-a-half beats per second. Wham! gives me their famous “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” and Ivi Adamou delivers, in Greek, what sounds to me like an alternate version of the same tune, “To Mistiko Mou Na Vris.” 

Approaching three beats per second is “Take On Me” by A-Ha which, if you have ever seen the music video, has to do with entering and exiting a comic book and crossing through magic portals with a ghost friend. Probably it has to do with projecting oneself onto other people. Last on my playlist, The Afters sing “I Am Yours.” It may sound relaxed but, when I am already running, this increases my pace. It’s an ode of gratitude for someone’s ultimate sacrifice. The band intended it as Christian theology, but I fill in the blanks with my own secular mythos of who gave what in the past and what I would give now if things could be different.

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For a couple months, I’ve been running for hours every day. My thoughts are on a loop. It does not feel good. I am running to keep my thoughts under control. The playlist is a containment strategy.

“You look great,” my acquaintances say. 

Do I? I have lost a significant part of my body weight: a quarter, maybe a third. My belt is pulled all the way to the last notch and hangs loosely on my waist. My pants billow out. I will need new clothes.

I was not trying to lose weight.

I was not trying to lose weight. I appreciate that I have developed the physical fitness to run, especially as running helps me manage my feelings, but I do not have feelings about my weight one way or the other. My feelings circulate in deep, complex patterns within the personal crisis that has caused me to run in circles for two months. Anyone who thinks I look “great” is referring to their opinion of a change to my outside and probably doesn’t see what is happening on my inside.

I tell you this story for a reason. I do not want you to lose weight. I want you to have this playlist.

To listen to Tucker’s song choices in order, click here for the Spotify playlist.

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Tucker Lieberman is the author of Bad Fire, a memoir of unintentional weight loss; Ten Past Noon, a biography of a man who died by suicide; and Painting Dragons, literary criticism of villains.