September is made for poetry and song. It’s a melancholy month, tender in many ways, a time for beginnings and endings—the start of new school days and the end of summer’s promises. There are shadows of this in the face of a young girl waiting at the corner just around the block from my home. I’m guessing she’s fifteen years old, her long hair pulled back in a simple ponytail, her long legs holding up a gangly body and a slightly hunched back, stressed by the weight of a red backpack. She is alone, looking to the distance, apparently anticipating the school bus, as the semester’s first days have come. If she is aware of Sam and me, she is not about to acknowledge it. Disinterest or painful self-consciousness has its grip. There’s something sad about her, but yet somehow hopeful, as if she is waiting for something, a fresh experience more beautiful than what has come before.
Earlier this morning, I sensed the same sort of longing in me and from Sam. I have headed back to school not unlike the girl, my sabbatical over, classes at the college are underway. But my sense of longing had nothing to do with a return; it was instead about a departure. It came a dream, still there when I awoke. I’m standing on the stern of a boat, watching the shoreline disappear as I head out to sea. I am missing someone, yearning for them. I don’t know why, don’t know who, but the feeling is profound. Sam, on the other hand, longs for attention. It was evident in the way she had come to the bedside, the way she had used her paws like human hands to wrap around my arm and pull on me, as if she could no longer delay the day, as if she, too, wanted to hurry and stand at the corner with the girl and wait. I rose from the bed, pulled on some old shorts and a black tee-shirt, and grabbed my phone and earbuds. I rarely listen to music on our walks, an unusual thing, considering my love of music. But the September mood was taking hold, the poetry and song, and so, I clicked on the Spotify playlist I had made years before, one I had titled “September,” and stepped into the coolness of the morning, Amos Lee’s “El Camino” playing in my ears, Sam by my side, and in front of us at the first turn, the young girl, waiting.
There are those who believe “El Camino” is a song about Johnny Cash, a tribute of sorts. Others say it is Lee’s ode to parenthood, his own maybe, or a letter to a new love. But to me, it has always been about the longing for some new awareness and finding the courage to embrace it, a song that seems just right for this morning, for me, for the girl, maybe for Sam, too, somehow. I want to say good morning, but the girl appears too vulnerable. So, I pull Sam’s leash close and walk by with no words, only the lyrics of Lee’s nearly perfect song playing in my head.
Sam and I walk north, and one after the other the songs come. Glen Hansard’s “Winning Streak,” is encouragement for a friend, a lover, a child. It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s lullaby to his son, “Forever Young.” Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” is about getting sober and finding a new love. “She Treats Me Well” is Ben Howard’s song of contentment. In Joni Mitchell’s “Chinese Café” she embraces age, and forgives herself for giving her daughter up for adoption so many years ago.
The day has come alive, and it builds as we continue north toward the three-way intersection. To my left, there’s a man on a front porch, typing away on his laptop, a mug of coffee balancing on the wooden railing. On the side porch of another home, a couple sits together in quiet conversation. The junk man’s truck rumbles past, the payload unbalanced and teetering, the driver heading for the streets two blocks east where fresh throwaways line the curbs. Garden workers unload an oversized lawn mower from the back of a red flatbed truck, and up ahead, a large shorthaired dog rests in a driveway, attentively watching as we come closer.
“You see him, Sam?” I ask. Sam’s is keen to the dog. The two are now in a stare. But there is no growling, no barking. There is communication of a kind, I believe, but all I hear is Bruce Cockburn’s “Going to the Country.”
Sam sniffs the base of a tree in the parkway at the corner as an older woman with silver-white hair and pink tennis shoes appears from the west. She smiles at Sam and then me, waves, and walks to the street to avoid us. The woman is on a pace she does not want to alter.
“Summersong” by the Decemberists plays in my ears.
Sam can’t hear any of the music, but she, like me, appears to have fallen into the rhythm of the month—a steady contemplative walk—and she’s taking in what is before her—her ears and eyes attentive, even looking above when the slow roar of a commuter plane climbs in the sky. Patty Griffin sings “Long Ride Home.” And then here’s Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” and Steve Earle’s “Jericho Road.” As we turn south again, Sam eyes a hopping robin in the parkway grass and follows it, the bird moving to the exact tempo of Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River.”
I wonder why I haven’t done this before, brought music along on these walks. Each step is elevated by song, as if the walk has a soundtrack, notes meant to liven the movement. These songs are not motivational gimmicks, not a runner’s pulsating playlist meant to stimulate the beats of the heart, but rather a set of melodies to feed the soul. It is not music designed to pick-me-up or to channel angst—sad songs for a sad day, happy songs for a mood change. It is neither strained nor artificial, but instead unexpected and honest. Psychologists say music can release deep levels of thought and emotion, putting time on hold. And poets, like John Dryden have asked: What passion cannot music raise and quell? The answer is somewhere in the genes, I believe, where music is woven like melody into our DNA.
We’re home now, and Sam and I walk the driveway to the back entrance of the house. Once inside, I unlatch her leash and call on the living room’s smart speaker to connect to my playlist. George Ezra’s “Blame it On Me” fills the room.
“Alexa,” I command, “turn up the volume.”
Standing before Sam, I slap my hands on my chest. She lifts her paws to me and I take them. The bouncy chords of Ezra’s song of love and the consequences of the heart take over the space all around, and Sam and I begin to dance. We sway and we slide, a kind of unabashed two-step. Our movements lack grace, but it doesn’t matter, for the music is all we need, a gift, a little burst of delight, placing a man and his dog in a momentary state of joy.
I hope the young girl we saw earlier at the corner hears her music today, her September playlist. Maybe that’s what she had been waiting for, standing there alone in the early morning.