Down the road about an hour from where I live is a little town called Branchburg. I’ve never been to Branchburg. I don’t know why anybody living just outside of New York City would ever go to Branchburg. But now, I can say, I’ve been, and I think I’ll probably go back.
That’s because after my failed attempt last week at picking up groceries without causing a ruckus, Branchburg became my saving grace. Living in one of the counties hardest-hit by coronavirus in the whole of the U.S. has made something as simple as grocery shopping a rather stressful occasion, so hearing that some grocery stores in rural areas were quieter and more well-stocked, I pulled out my phone and looked up towns in New Jersey with the fewest numbers of COVID-19 deaths and took to the wild open road.
I should add that I’ve only left my house on a few occasions during the quarantine–first, on walks to the cemetery, which I haven’t done in weeks and, then, a handful of trips to pick-up essential items. Other than that and a brief drive up the Palisades Parkway, I’ve been confined to my apartment in one of the busiest regions of the country. So, when it came to leaving, I knew this was going to be an adventure.
I’m not kidding. When you’ve had cabin fever for weeks, a drive down the highway can make you feel like you’re about to summer in Paris.
I turned on my music and threw the playlist on random and hit the gas. It seems like every single song I hear right now makes me more emotional than usual, maybe because a pandemic and living in survival mode brings out your more sensitive side. I sang along, belting out Ben Folds and Clem Snide, tearing up a few times.
The road was wide open, and I may have sped a little more than I should have. I saw deer, slowed down, and remembered I wasn’t just outside of New York City anymore. But the longer I drove and the farther I got from home, the more familiar and welcoming the wide open countryside seemed. It was almost as though it reminded me where I came from in Tennessee, even though this was still New Jersey.
The grass was painted blue in the twilight and the highway did what so many American highways do, stretching out along some repetitious, endless horizon lined by the same, common trees–red oak and spruce and maple–all the way to kingdom come. Turning off the highway as I got closer to Branchburg, the land was flatter and a white picket fence lined one of the country roads, and for a moment, I could’ve sworn I actually was back in Tennessee.
I wondered what it would be like to be back there, even if just briefly, to drive around late at night and get lost on some windy backwoods road. I let myself miss it.
The music I was listening to complemented what I was seeing all around me. Throughout the drive, as different songs came on the playlist, they were accompanied by the people I associated them with. There was the Beatles song I seemed to recall singing with Zandrea as I sat in her passenger seat cruising around hating on our high school lives together–the one that described exactly how I currently feel. There was the Travis song that made me think of Eilidh, the girl I’d fallen for in Scotland, whose cousin or brother was the drummer of the band, I can’t recall which. There was the Decemberists song that reminded me of hiking the Grand Canyon with Andy Day and how on our drive from Memphis to Arizona we listened constantly to the Decemberists because it was the only music we could both agree on wanting to hear. There was an oddly-placed Christmas song by Sufjan Stevens that took me back to the Christmas I got stuck in Nebraska because of unexpected snow. There was classic Elliott Smith and my memory of Andy VanCleve who recorded a version of himself playing the same song in his doorway while it rained outside.
There was Vampire Weekend and William Fitzsimmons and the Bleachers. Sara and Jonathan and Patrick. Jackson and camp and St. Louis. So few memories of all there is; still, so many and so much packed in there.
Maybe when you’re scared of Death or facing it head on, whether Death comes for you or those around you, your memories become all the more powerful. The people aren’t just old friends and lovers; they’re you. Or what made you, you. And when the most significant thing you have left of them–of that time and place you shared–is a memory and a song, it burrows into your psyche deep enough that the feelings of it and what it was are stronger than whatever actually happened, whatever the details were.
We’re trying so hard, good God, just to eek by in this time. Clinging to the past gives us hope, I think, because we’re reminded that despite all the bad moments we might recall, we sure as hell had some good ones, too. We sure as hell made some memories worth singing about. And those people, whether they’ve come and gone in our lives or linger closely by, we’re still somehow singing with them, one way or the other.
I think that’s why a pandemic has lead us to reach out in ways we never thought we would to so many we used to know and care deeply about.
My drive back East was quieter. I had the groceries–safely–in tow. I had all those songs and memories flooding over me. I sat by myself in the car breezing by the dotted lines in the road like they were a “connect-the-dots” and I was drawing a picture. In hindsight, I wasn’t–I am not–alone. And I know even if we don’t speak or remember every little detail of each other, you aren’t alone either. I’m at least one person who is with you still, if you could tolerate that, pain in the ass from your past I may have been–here, now still singing along just the way I was way back when–and always will be.
Maybe that’s what forgiveness is supposed to be–the ability to find a person again as you remember them in spite of the way time and regret can sour a memory. And the closer we come to meeting our makers, the easier it becomes to sweeten what was sour, to let the anger and the pain give way, not to dismiss the past or even cherry-pick it, but to embrace the complex, nuanced realities and vulnerabilities that give our lives just enough notes to be melodic as opposed to banging on the keys and just hearing the same old discord again and again. Forgiveness, then, is not a reclaiming of a rose-colored past, as simple and nice as that sounds, so much as it is a willingness to add more context, give more understanding, open ourselves to greater perspective, embrace our own roles and struggles, all as part of rebuilding what went from a duet to a solo and giving that the right sounds it needs to smooth out the song there at the end.
And the open road, from New York City all the way to Branchburg, New Jersey, seems like a good enough place to try to belt out the songs that do just that.