Yesterday Isabel and I were driving to the grocery store when a song by singer/surfer/songwriter Jack Johnson came on the radio. The song is called “Bubble Toes” and right away Isabel said, “I LLLLOOOOOOVE this song. Turn it up.” I love that song too, but probably for different reasons than Isabel does.
Erica and I never “Ferberized” Isabel and as a result we have spent thousands of hours helping our daughter fall asleep. For one eight-month stretch I danced in the dark with her every night to the Paul Simon album called “You’re The One.” When that disc wore out, (literally), we switched to a mix of songs we created ourselves. The one thing these songs had in common was a strong mid-tempo beat, since that seemed to be the magic rhythm by which to bounce our girl off to dreamland.
One of the songs on that disc was Jack Johnson’s “Bubble Toes,” the song we heard in the car yesterday. I asked Isabel what she liked about it and she said, “It’s just a great song—it’s very catchy.” And she is right—it is a very catchy song. But its effect on me is surprisingly layered and strong for such a simple song. When I hear it I am immediately cast back to Isabel’s room in our house in Trumansburg.
It was always dark in that room and she was always in my arms. The Winnie the Pooh characters Erica painted on the wall were always watching us as we “danced” around the room. The top of Isabel’s head was always tucked under my chin and the smell of her hair always filled my nostrils. No matter how much work I had to do or how preoccupied I was before closing the door and hitting “Play,” I just about always managed to sink into a special space where Isabel and I developed one breath, one heartbeat, one sleepy state of mind.
Now when I hear the first few notes of “Bubble Toes” my mood, no matter where it is, automatically improves. If I am happy, I get happier. If I am down, I feel myself rise up a little. But underneath the immediate boost in mood, there is another layer of response. I am reminded of those many nights dancing in the dark and I know that they will never return with Isabel. She is already too old (and too heavy) to go back to those days. More than just about anything else in the world, this catchy ditty reminds me of how fast time passes. And this awareness of the passing of time makes me sad. It colors my mood boost with a certain melancholy that adds depth the same way shading adds dimension to drawings.
At first blush these two responses to the same song seem contradictory to me. But when I really think about it I realize that they are connected. It is not a new thought that the ability to feel joy as an adult may depend on how deeply sorrow has affected you—that remaining open to joy leaves you open to sadness, too. But it surprises me when something as simple as a song about a girl with tough, dirty feet drives this truth home in a way that brings tears to my eyes.