here’s to familiar refrains…

My daughter recently gifted me with a Melissa Manchester CD, and I was amazed—although I should not have been—how readily I remembered the words to her “old songs.” And as I reveled in singing along, I felt transported back to the time and place that I listened to Ms. Manchester, waiting for my teenage children to return from school. I relived the intensity of the emotion I felt then, especially when singing about the clown who was me. (Maybe I read too many young adult romance novels for my own good…)

It wasn’t only her music that accompanied me through the day; it was Barry Manilow’s and Diana Ross’s voices who did me the honors, too. Quite a threesome they were: Manilow, Manchester, and Ross. I alternated listening to them, not in any particular predetermined order, sometimes enjoying all three voices in one day, and sometimes sticking to one of another of them exclusively for a number of days. Why, I hadn’t really thought about. Nor could I verbalize my motives—even to myself. Not that I ever asked myself…till one day…..

Years after they left the house, my children boasted knowing what kind of mood they would find me in before even opening the front door. Their secret technique? They would listen through the door for the sound of the songs playing in the living room. They didn’t share, and honestly, I didn’t want to ask, which artist they paired with which mood of mine. But they insisted that they used the music as a barometer of how to approach me—or not approach me—with certain information or requests. And to think that I thought I was home alone enjoying music until my children came home, with the music having nothing to do with them… (Neither of them liked any of the three artists at the time, though in recent years, my daughter has been to a few Manilow concerts. I never have.)

So there’s the real life. What does Melissa Manchester’s music have to do with literature? For years, I have encouraged my students to hear the music in poetry and vice versa (okay, I know it can be a challenge to hear the poetry in some of today’s songs). Having taught so much poetry in the intervening decades since I first hummed and sang along to my favorite threesome, this time when I listened to the lyrics of so many of Manchester’s songs, I appreciated all the figures of speech they embraced in ways I never had been attuned to years before. And I find myself repeating some of those lines to myself, just as I did years ago, but with more sensitivity and appreciation for the intricacy and the beauty of the figurative language.

I thought, too, about how lines from works of literature can emblazon themselves on our hearts and minds. “It was the best of times….” …”I think that I shall never see…” “It is a far, far better thing…,” and my personal all-time favorite: “I think I can; I think I can…”

As an adolescent who considered the familiar refrain from Wally Piper’s Little Engine That Could as just so much propaganda from adults trying to dupe their children into believing not to fear or striving to reach new heights—or even to do the mundane, like trying their dreaded spinach, as an adult, I have grown to have deep respect and gratitude for Mr. Piper and his positive message. Now, as a certified psychology teacher, I have read the studies that support the effects of our words—positive or negative—on our self-esteem and achievement.

So now, unashamedly, when I hesitate to do something tough that I know I best do, I say to myself, sometimes even out loud: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

And sometimes, not always, I prove myself right.

p.s. Did I mention that my daughter is taking me to my first Barry Manilow concert soon and very soon?  … I promise to be on my best behavior and not to scream:)  “I think I can. I think I can… I think I can.”

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