“Moon River,” JT, and Me

Simple joys help us flow back to the best things in life. “Never have I so sensed in my patients and myself the necessity of cultivating awareness of simple joys.”

Ding. “Hey, your man JT won a Grammy!”

It was my daughter texting me that my lifelong favorite singer-songwriter James Taylor had won best traditional pop album for his recent collection of covers called American Standard. When I replied that I didn’t know he’d come out with a new album, I soon heard another ding: “Shocking!” That’s because throughout her childhood whenever JT came out with a new album I would play it for months every night during dishwashing time.

When I heard my man had won a Grammy at 73, I had to check out his new album. Sampling the tunes on Spotify, I hit the skip button repeatedly until I got to “Moon River.” I was just one year old when Audrey Hepburn sang this Academy Award winner in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I was, of course, familiar with its classic melody, but I’d never really listened closely to the words before listening to JT sing them. I hadn’t realized it’s a sort of love song to a river that promises to carry the singer away on an adventure to see the world. As I listened, the combination of a mental image of a full moon reflecting on a river on a beautiful evening, Taylor’s still velvety voice, and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics took me to a place of deep peace:

Two drifters, off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
We’re after the same rainbow's end
Waitin’ ‘round the bend
My huckleberry friend
Moon river and me

The next morning, the tune still playing in my mind, I realized that I long to flow through this troubled world the way a lazy river keeps sliding on by. The few minutes with “Moon River” the evening before awakened an awareness that I’ve grown bone-weary of reports of COVID-19, climate change, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and monster polar vortex storms. I long to feel at home on this earth again, to enjoy its ineffable beauty without simultaneously grieving that we humans have made the environment so tragically F-UP-able.

The past year was the busiest period of seeing patients in my 30 years in mental health. The pandemic for some has led to the loss of loved ones, but for all of us it has brought a loss of innocence, a bursting of any mental bubble of protection we may have had that we moderns could never go through something this scary and drawn out. I heard someone describe this pandemic as a global trauma. To the degree that’s true, we may all have a touch or more of PTSD. After a year in which we couldn’t be with loved ones as they died, hug those we are closest to, or breathe the same air as some of our family members, it will take a while to let our nervous systems reset to any semblance of normalcy and predictability. We need to learn to trust life again.

Patients with PTSD can work on symptoms from the top down (reframing anxiety-provoking thoughts) or from the bottom up (conditioning the body to live closer to peace and calm). JT and “Moon River” gave me some bottom-up therapy the other evening. For a moment, I remembered the simple, sweet goodness of life.

It’s spring and we’re still in this pandemic. Never have I so sensed in my patients and myself the necessity of cultivating awareness of simple joys. For a time after this pandemic’s spell breaks, it will be extraordinary just to hug loved ones again or to share a meal with them. May we never again habituate to what we have painfully learned are the best things in life. And may we remember that every COVID-weary human being in our country and around the world is “after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ ‘round the bend.”

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