Knocking on the Backdoor to the Soul
This article originally ran in the September / October 2014 edition of PS Magazine:The Creative Arts on p.14.
It’s 1995. My father, who is living with Alzheimer’s disease, sits across from me in a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He is quiet, staring at his hands in his lap. Most of the day, he’s seemed lost in his own world… one I can’t quite seem to reach. While we sit there, picking at our food, a Flamenco guitarist sets up in the corner of the room and begins to strum a few chords. The music begins to pick up, and I watch Dad’s eyes focus in a way that I hadn’t seen in months. There’s a light there, a glimmer of someone I used to know. As the music builds, so does Dad’s attention, and before I know it, he’s across the room, clapping out the most exquisite flamenco beat in perfect time to the music. The guitarist grins approvingly and eggs him on in Spanish. Dad doesn’t speak Spanish, but the language they share in this moment transcends any spoken word or dialect.
A door in time has somehow opened, and I can see the cocky young soldier, devastating women on the dance floor with merengue, tango, and paso doble. As a young man, Dad had been a 1940’s era bad boy, the gorgeous Errol Flynn type, who convinced my mother to marry him during a single spin on the dance floor. Mom said he could own the room, when he wanted to, and here, he’s owning it again, so “big” in who he is, who he’d been, and who he will always be in my heart.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2012. There’s buzz in my email inbox and Facebook about someone named Henry. Word has it that a video clip of a man living with dementia has gone viral on social media. This catches my attention. Working in the field of eldercare, I’m sadly unaccustomed to people expressing much interest in those who live with dementia. When I click on the link for the clip, however, I see the fascination. What I find there is an incredible example of the tenacity of the human spirit. Our first sight of Henry finds him listless and bent over his interlaced fingers. But, once he’s offered an iPod that plays his favorite music – the jazz singer Cab Calloway – Henry begins to bloom like a flower. His posture changes, his eyes open wide, his hands move with the music, he begins to croon and scat along with style, throwing in a spirited “OoWWWW!” here and there, for emphasis.
An off-camera voice asks Henry what the music does for him. Minimally responsive only moments before, Henry eloquently states, “It gives me the feeling of love… I feel a band of love, of dreams.”
Identity, meaning, and joy are among seven domains of experience that The Eden Alternative says are essential to our well-being. In the video clip, Henry’s reflections are cross-cut with comments from renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, who shares that the music has helped Henry become “restored to himself,” that he has “re-acquired his identity.” Like with Dad that day back in 1995, Henry’s favorite music has offered a back door to the soul, a way back to what inspires him and all that is rich in meaning and memory.
Henry’s story and a handful of others are the focus of Alive Inside, winner of the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. This moving documentary highlights the work of Dan Cohen, a social worker determined to transform the lives of those living with dementia and other cognitive challenges through access to personalized music. Cohen’s work builds on extensive research that affirms the neuroscientific impact of music on the brain. Experts maintain that music serves as a sort of portal to our unique personhood. We can all recall times in our lives when a song we hear triggers a memory, a feeling, or even sensory information associated with a certain moment in time. This becomes especially crucial when memory is challenged in some way and the experience of our own identity is harder to access. Then, notes Sacks, our sense of self, “which is not recoverable in any other way, is embedded, as if in amber, in the music.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Principle Six of The Eden Alternative reminds us that tapping into those things that we find meaningful is essential to our health. Thus, when we can no longer connect to our true essence through the usual channels, the soul finds an alternate route through the power of music. It is no surprise, then, that when Dad lost the ability to express himself with words, he began to sing his story instead.
In the last two years of his life, Dad found his voice mostly through jazz scat. Like Henry, this had been the music of his youth, and with a flawless sense of rhythm, he would sing to me how he was feeling. “Ba doobee ba ba, bada boom ba boom,” I might hear, capped with “and that’s it” on the end like punctuation. I could sense his mood through his inflection. If he was melancholy, the singing would be slower, softer. If he was angry, he’d riff through gritted teeth. If it was joy he felt, it was infectious. What touched me was how we seemed to feel closer through all of this. The new language we shared called on me to tune into him and reach him in a way that the use of words had somehow prohibited.
As the Persian poet Rumi once said, we had “fallen into the place where everything is music.” Where words no longer brought us together, something richer did… a universal expression, a deeper knowing… a place where the resilient human spirit, against all odds, rises to meet itself and seek another.
“Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.”
~Rumi, 13th century