Music has a way of securing its melodic grip around my heart, prompting comfort, inspiration, sadness, and, of course, joy. Ever since I can remember, I have taken music with me on my solo outdoor adventures. The cacophony of nature has its place as well. But the combination of a perfectly crafted piece of music, seemingly written just for me, paired with sunshine and fresh air, draws me into the moment and deepens the experience.
As a child, I spent plenty of time exploring the farms we lived on and the forests surrounding them, sporting metal and foam earphones, the wires in an endless tangle. I vividly recall my red Sony Walkman cassette player with the clunky play, stop, fast-forward, and rewind buttons. Then, CDs came along, and it seemed like a meditation practice, walking with music steady enough to keep those annoying skips at a tolerable rate. Perhaps that was when the little-known Luddite in me was born.
Eventually, the MP3 player joined the scene and made many promises it couldn't keep; until Apple saved the day with the iPod. Remember the wheel on the first iPods? I loved the tactile nature of those early designs. I could scroll to the album or song I wanted by feel. When I finally had to "upgrade" to a touch screen, I remember thinking, "Who needs album covers on the front of the music player? Where's the magic wheel?"
My favorite music player was my turquoise iPod shuffle. Just slightly wider than my pinky and not even as long, it fit perfectly in my running top. Invisible. Lightweight. So 2010. I trained for and ran my first marathon with that trusty purveyor of tunes, and if I could fire it up and use it for Leadville, I would. The battery lasted forever, there were absolutely zero notifications, and all you could do was skip forward or back for songs and adjust the volume. Simplicity. Freedom.
Something About Lyrics
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, if I can't understand the lyrics, I find it hard to connect with the song. My husband was the opposite; he tuned into the rhythm and the melody, the drums and the guitars, and was often surprised when I'd tell him what the song was actually about. We eventually made a pact that I'd stop ruining it for him.
Before the days of streaming music services, where lyrics are now handed to us instantly and effortlessly, I would consult the tape or CD sleeves for lyrics–if I was so fortunate as to own the album. My sister and I often found ourselves following the local radio station's "Top 8 at 8" show, recording the predicted upcoming song to tapes, then spending our free time figuring out the lyrics. Once you rewind and press play ten times to discern a hard-to-understand verse, scribbling it into a notebook, it'll stay with you forever, even when you discover later that you got it all wrong. Sometimes I made up my own lyrics to musical elements; I couldn't help myself. The opening and recurring electronic riff of Genesis' "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" will always say, "Cookie therapy, cookie therapy" to me.
Exercise is a way to clear my head. It is the only way I am successful at anything that borders on meditation. When mountain biking on rough terrain, navigating rocks, roots, mud, and the grabby rhododendron, I find it hard to think of anything else. My mind rarely wanders to my to-do list or dinner recipe. Focus is critical to staying rubber-side down, and my brain gets a break from everyday stress. I hear my favorite yoga teacher saying, "Stay on the mat." However, out there on the gravel roads, with many miles already in the legs and many to go, I find the outside world creeping in. Sometimes, given enough time, I can solve one of life's complex problems. It's a shame I forget the solution half the time once the bike is back in the barn.
So yes, I ride plenty without music. But when I'm alone or on longer endurance rides, I turn to the playlist as…a distraction? Company? Motivation? Performance enhancer? Depending on the day, some or all of these apply. And the reason is simple. My mind needs a break from thinking. "How many miles do I have left? Why is my back hurting again? When is the next snack? Why can't I keep up with anyone, ever? Am I going to be able to finish this ride? Is this the pace I need to make the Twin Lakes cut-off? I forgot to send that email. I wonder what my dog has gotten into now."
See what I mean? It can be torturous. The music puts most of that to bed. My connection to the lyrics of most songs on my playlist is purposeful enough to boost my mood, increase positivity, and speak to my spirit instead of my mind. Certain pieces make me think about specific people or issues, providing a current for my thoughts and focusing them into something more productive and less scattered. And, in a practical sense, a song with the perfect beats per minute correlates with my pedal stroke, allowing for a powerful sync of cadence.
Enjoy Your Life
As with many meaningful songs, I remember the first time I heard "Enjoy Your Life" by Romy. It was on a neighborhood stroll with my dog, Hazel, earlier this year. The song's first line: "My mother says to me, enjoy your life."
I stopped in my tracks, instantly giving full attention to the music. I still like figuring out the lyrics, so I listened very closely. Romy is singing about her mother giving her some overly simplistic advice–motherly advice I would never experience again. I could feel the grip of sadness in my throat despite the song's upbeat tempo and positive energy. A few months earlier, in August of 2022, my mother lost her 7-year battle with pancreatic cancer. She endured the surgeries, treatments, and medications longer than most. On paper, she was a miracle. In real life, even more so, not simply because of the survivor statistic she had become, but because of the dedicated and devoted mother she had been.
Looking back, I see how she always put my brother, sister, and me first, many times in front of her own needs and desires. She was also unwaveringly faithful in her acceptance and love for us. We all made decisions she disagreed with or didn't understand, but she always supported us and remained our biggest fan. In this way, she represents the most courageous form of unconditional love–a love that stays true despite differences.
After multiple choruses, the first verse:
Somebody tell me why
I'm scared to close my eyes,
and I'm too afraid to watch the news.
Dancing on my own again.
Anxiety, my old friend,
Says why would you try something new?
I made a promise to my mother
To stop running from my problems
Oh, now she says to me:
"Enjoy your life."
Enjoy your life. Think about that for just a moment. What would you do if you followed that advice? Put some cream and sugar in your coffee? Take that extra long weekend at the beach? Buy a new bike? Quit your job and move to the mountains?
Of course, my mother never said those exact words to me. But, as I reflect on our time with her in those final days, I do remember her saying, "Whatever makes you happy, honey." This comment came after I told her I was getting a new bike, and her first response was, "How many bikes do you need?" I laughed. I wasn't quick enough to pull up the graphic on my phone–you always need a new bike. I did take the time to explain that each one has a specific purpose.
"Whatever makes you happy."
My mom would say that quite often through the years. She meant it: if you find happiness, hang on to it. It's fleeting. And more than anything, as with most parents, she just wanted her children to find joy. I also think she should've given herself permission to enjoy her own life; maybe she was thinking the same as she faced the end. Between the pains of cancer, she found joyful moments–movies and Starbucks with her kids, Facetime with her grandchildren, dinner and Dunkin' Donuts with her friends and siblings, and a wonderful 77th birthday party surrounded by her offspring.
The more I listen to "Enjoy Your Life," the more I hear my mother telling me to enjoy mine. If she could speak to me now, I bet she'd say: "It goes by too soon. It's over too fast. There is so much left to do. Enjoy it while you can."
Music, Safety, and Cycling
I can't responsibly talk about listening to music while riding without addressing the safety concerns I can hear my mother asking me about.
"What? Do you ride on roads? With earphones? How do you hear the cars?"
Truth be told, I do my best to avoid roads, especially heavily traveled roads with high-speed traffic. But, as I get increasingly into gravel grinding, I've had to edge out of my comfort zone and onto the shoulder of a busy road for a few miles here and there to make a connection. In this case, I always stop playing music and take my left ear pod out, or sometimes both.
If I'm on a low-use paved road, I still keep the left ear open and the volume very low or off. Gravel roads allow for a little more freedom while listening, vehicles usually move slower, and the crunch of their wheels over the rock and stone alerts me to their presence. And I always ensure the noise control feature of the AirPods is in transparency mode, allowing me to hear most of the ambient sound around me.
The forest trail, of course, provides the most freedom when it comes to pairing music with my ride. At least half my trail rides these days are with my friends, and the social nature of chit-chat and route planning takes the place of any desire to listen to music. If you see me popping in my ear pods at the end of a group ride, it means I need a boost. However, when it's just me and my pup on a familiar trail, music adds to the enjoyment without posing any real safety concerns.
There is a slight possibility I miss a mama bear rustling around in the woods as her cubs scramble up a tree. "What, there are bears?" Yes, ma'am, and nervous deer and darting red squirrels. Nature is just full of surprises.
There is a new way to listen to music without plugging your ear. Bone-conduction sound devices, such as the one pictured below, have been on the market for a few years. I've yet to try any of these, but more and more runners, and some cyclists, are experimenting with this method of listening.
But what about simply enjoying the sounds of nature?
While riding, the sound of nature is often overtaken by a noisy seat post, creaky bottom bracket, or mud-covered cassette. Then there's the sound of my breathing, sometimes labored. I find my morning and evening dog walks a much better opportunity to enjoy nature's sounds—with spring in full swing, listening to the birds, frogs, and breeze through the leaves is remarkably relaxing.
The Lens of Joy
The song's closing verse:
Somebody tell me why
I'm scared for you to see me cry.
Yeah, I feel fine, how about you?
I don't remember what my dreams are,
I can hear her saying wake up
Oh, now she says to me:
"Enjoy your life."
I find looking at daily choices through the lens of joy can be very revealing. And by joy, I do not mean whatever causes the most dopamine hits; I mean sincere satisfaction in the experience of the moment.
I visualize our time here as a precious ribbon of time connecting all sorts of suffering and angst with strong, brightly colored threads of beautiful, life-sustaining moments of happiness. The lens of joy can help us wake up from the fog, stay grounded in the present, and remember our long-forgotten dreams.
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