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Music, Memoir, and Midlife

While navigating midlife challenges, including a recent hip replacement, memoir writer Stacey Hall Burge discovers the unexpected synergy between music, memory, and writing.

By Stacey Hall Burge

December 07, 2023

Scoot, shuffle, catch. That was the sound and the feeling of my new walker. Scoot—pushing the metal with arms. Shuffle—feet following the metal only after repeated orders from my brain muddled by pain and pills. Catch—crack or seam in the pavement, or even an errant twig making scoot, shuffle impossible. Oh, I get it now, I thought as I made my slow way into the concert venue, already pulsing like a 1980s boombox. Now I know why people put tennis balls on their walker’s legs!

At almost 50, I had a hip replacement and started the Memoir Incubator, and I was unsure how I had arrived at either. I felt too young for a walker and too old to pick writing back up. Hadn’t I walked off that path years ago? Writing, like all art, is about creation, and isn’t creating for the young? Whether having the necessary years to build a nuanced body of art, the time to improve one’s craft, or the intensity of youth to inspire risk-taking—it is all about being on the front side of midlife. My own music playlists feature new music by young people who have urgent things to say.

Why was I embarking on this project now? Hip replacement and memoir-writing seemed a disastrous combination to pursue at once. The hip would heal, and the walker would eventually be retired after a couple of months, but I was on the hook all year and beyond for a memoir. Was there anything urgent that must be said among my recollections?

I found the elevator I needed down a long passage. It was added to this historic building, Memorial Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, long after its original design and placed out of the way, almost forgotten–as people walked past me to reach their seats. This was my third attempt at seeing the Cowboy Junkies. The first attempt was canceled due to the pandemic, and for the second, I had a work conflict. I would not let my hip surgery get in the way of seeing one of my favorite bands. Not after also failing to see them back when we were all young. When I played their music on the daily drive to my first grown-up job and sang so loud, wondering if I might want to be a singer someday. When someday was a thing.

There was no someday anymore, it seemed, for me and certainly not for the crowd of fans. The woman seated in front of me had an oxygen tank. The man to my left was dancing with a cane. As I sang along to “Common Disaster,” one of my favorite songs, each note and lyric evoked a smell, a sound, an image from 1996, the year my memoir begins. As a 23-year-old, I listened to this song on the way to work every morning. Now, at the Junkies concert, while leaning on my walker, I realized that music could facilitate my memoir-writing process. Music improves the memory of Alzheimer’s patients, I once read. The details that began popping up would eventually form my first memoir scene.

Then the Junkies played a song from their new album. At first, I did not want to hear it. I wanted to continue my journey backward out of my aching body, out of my doubt about writing on the back side of midlife. The music caught me anyway. The song “What I Lost” is about coping with an aging father’s dementia. It played as well as my old favorite, and what’s more, it brought to mind the loss of my grandmother to Alzheimer’s. The old song facilitated memory. The new song brought a recognition of grief that is still fresh. The band continues to create. Their decades-long devotion to making new work helped me to understand, at age 50, why memoir and why now. The answer is–like the dancing man with the cane–because I can. Age does not change the possibility of impact through the written word, whether song lyrics or my own story.

Music, I remembered from other articles I had read, also improves focus and the ability to communicate. In short, it helps everyone, not just those suffering from dementia, create new moments. When possible, I drive to a coffee shop or library to write, and I play music on the way. Old songs evoke memories, conjuring smells, sounds, and feelings. New stuff promotes new thinking and a fresh perspective. Music helps me to set my writing intention, to focus on where I want to start, or to shake loose a block or hurdle that has emerged. And if in all this writing, someday, someone reads it and finds a moment of recognition, like I had with the Junkies’ new song, then wow.

I still have someday, after all.

Please enjoy my playlist titled “Old and Urgent.”

Stacey Hall Burge

Stacey Hall Burge is a non-profit CEO in Cincinnati, Ohio and is currently writing her memoir in book inc's Memoir Incubator.

Stacey Hall Burge is a non-profit CEO in Cincinnati, Ohio and is currently writing her memoir in book inc's Memoir Incubator.