Creative Nonfiction,  Medium

I’ll Just Burn Brighter

Sometimes a song (or two) is all we have

When I got the call, I was standing on the school shuttle, hand tied up in the strap overhead to keep myself from catapulting into the student in front of me. My backpack was light that day, I had only one afternoon class — a collaborative poetry experiment — and was puttering to campus early to meet up with some writer friends. After arriving and lugging my belongings to the third floor of the University Center, I pulled out my phone. One missed call. I frantically unlocked the thing, examining the unsaved number that had tried to reach me moments ago. It was a “389” number — wasn’t that the same as the number that had called me to set up the interview?

I rushed to the conference room we had reserved months ago for our weekly writing club meetings and threw my belongings onto the floor.

“I think I just got a call — I must have got the job!”

After obsessively unlocking and locking the phone a handful of times, I saw the telltale alert next to the green phone icon on my home screen — a voicemail.

It wouldn’t play. I talked to my dad, working in tech support at Apple, frantic with worry that I had somehow messed everything up. It still wouldn’t play. Ten minutes later I got it to work and heard a sweet, childish voice on the other end of the line from the college I had just interviewed with asking me to give her a call back.

I did.

My mom was the first person I called to give the news, followed shortly by my grandmother.

“I got the job!”

Four years of early mornings and late nights had paid off — I now had an answer when asked “what are your plans after graduation?”

My shiny new opportunity soon began to mattify — telltale signs of burnout coupled with struggling to fill the hard plastic mold of a place I simply didn’t fit made the days long and left me a little bruised. Beginning the week was a battle, each Sunday night accompanied by a feverish dread.

I began to wilt.

It was during this time that I relied on the creativity and beauty others had created to inspire me. As more and more choking dust began to pile on at work and in my personal life, I turned to music to water the garden of my heart.

After a rough week full of interactions with my boss where my every move was monitored and my tone policed, I found myself in the drive-thru at a local hamburger joint, getting a last-minute dinner on the way home from my parents’ house. My brother was in the hospital, concerns of another collapsed lung at the forefront of all our minds.

I turned on a new album by a new artist I hadn’t heard before, Caitlyn Smith. I don’t remember how I found her. I do know I had listened once before and the lyrics and words didn’t resonate with me — I listened to one song and decided to pass. But that night I listened again anyway, the melancholy strings and bluesy guitar riffs resonating within my bones.

I was living in a neverending cycle of job applications, interviews, and rejections for positions I had dreamed of — I had spent four years, writing, reading, and absorbing every inch of beauty my English literature degree could slather on in hopes of one day landing a job just like those I was hearing nothing but “no” from. I was facing the prospect of staying at my current job, a feat that felt undoable in every stretch of the word, and bending under the weight of family concerns, leaving me with a bitter taste in my mouth and a desire for a change that was being met instead with stalwart steadfastness. My options were to stay where I was or move on to a career in finance that matched my experience, but not my hopes and dreams. I wanted to be a writer, not just the go-to email wiz, much like Caitlyn Smith wanted to be a singer, not just a songwriter.

I listened with eyes closed against the red taillights glaring through my windshield, feeling my wilted heart unfurl — if only the tiniest bit — as I found someone else who had gone through the same thing.

“I gave you my soul
Cause I wanted it so bad and now I just wanna go home…”

I finally made it through the packed drive-thru line and drove into the night, feeling defeated but with a dim flicker of hope tucked away. If someone so lost could make something so beautiful out of their pain, surely I could do the same one day.

“I’ll wake up here tomorrow and do it all over again.
Even though you’re killing me…”

Soon I was back at work, sword fighting over the telephone with parents who were convinced I was wrong about federal tax law and being berated by upset students over email — no one really has the nerve to sling mud at a complete stranger in person. Resorting to maliciously typed names and biting growls was the preferred option.

On top of it all sat my overlord of a boss, reigning over his domain of filth while wearing a mask of professionalism and experience, stomping his scepter on the crumbling floor he so desperately was trying to keep from caving in.

Each day at lunch I took my only escape and drove home for a moment of solace before suiting up to head back into battle once more.

I found myself drawn, yet again, to Caitlyn Smith’s Starfire album during this time.

“I’ve been praying, asking God for help
But lately, it feels like I’ve been talking to myself.
I’ve been waiting, for life to get better.
And I need to cry but I’m afraid to cry
’Cause I just might cry forever”

Those last two lines got me every time and I ended my drive with a stone face ready for war — the only giveaway of a soft, wilted, heart the hot tears leaking down my cheeks as I sang along, getting strange looks from drivers passing by.

But after singing those words, I didn’t cry forever. I kept going. I kept trying to get out.

And eventually, I did.

Now whenever a song from Starfire comes on in the middle of the shuffled playlist I’m listening to, I hear it with fondness. These songs got me through a rough time and I still turn them on if I’m having a less-than-perfect day.

Music is the language of my family and the language of my heart, and my triumph. As the daughter of a musician who grew up listening to music nonstop and watching my father on stage every week, music has been a big part of my identity for a long time. Words put to wailing strings and pulsing drums have a rejuvenating quality for me — I find myself in lyrics coming from others that seem like they might as well be the words spilling from my own mouth.

Music reminds me of who I am.

“You won’t burn out this starfire —
there’s fearless dancing in my flames.
Blow me out, I’ll just burn brighter.
Oh, you can’t burn out this starfire
No matter what you say.”

Previously published in Inspired Writer

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