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MY GRANDKIDS CALL ME MOTOWN GRAMMY How the Soundtrack of my Youth Helps Me Cope WITH the lockdown

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic immobilized my social engagements, it has increased my awareness of my mortality as it relates to personal interaction. The risks based on the number of cases as well as deaths to those of us over 65 years of age who contract COVID have given way to stay-at-home requests without contact with those not living in our homes as well as setting special shopping hours in stores to protect us. The alone time prompted me to reflect on the sacrifices required to follow these rules, especially not spending time with my kids and grandkids.

Considering the probable impact of these sacrifices—isolation and loneliness among them—I was persuaded to reflect on what I can do to protect myself emotionally as well as physically. I recollected that on my journey through Menopause (MENOPAUSE, SISTERHOOD AND TENNIS)—the first time I came face to face with my mortality—the reckoning forced me to make a few lifestyle changes in order to slow down my unhealthy sprint to the old-folks home and beyond.

Looking back at my process to avoid freaking out over the telltale signs of my aging—weakening muscles and the so-called old-age-spread effect on my health, i.e. heart disease, borderline diabetes and high-blood pressure—it became clear that I needed more exercise. I, therefore, set out to find my thing. I joined a gym, started Pilates, played Tennis, tried Zumba. Thinking about those experiences reminded me that even then I had a tool with which to fight back, a tool that could provide me a coping mechanism to the deal with the physical and emotional contraindications of the COVID lock down. MOTOWN.

Motown has been a part of my life since it hit the airways in 1959. The Motown sound encourages dancing and singing that instigates an enormous desire to enjoy being alive in the moment. During my efforts to connect my menopausal body and mind in order to get on track to live a quality life while aging, I discovered that a Motown tune can trigger a memory of my younger self and get me moving and feeling happy. And when I read someone refer to Motown as the soundtrack to his youth, I adopted the sentiment and now consider it a part of my heritage, my legacy, if you will. Indeed, at the age of 72, every morning, at 6:30 a.m. (or there about), I walk into my garage home gym and say, “Alexa, play Motown.”

Wikipedia states that Motown is not only the greatest pop music hit factory heard, but an institution, a state of mind, a way of life, the sound of young America. No other sound has ever exerted such a substantial cultural influence on society, or me, I’ve learned. The younger me as well as the older me. So much so that my children and grandkids threw me a surprise Motown Grammy themed 70th birthday party. Whether it's despite or because of the fact that a Black woman like me with heart disease can die if infected with COVID, I decided to test my hypothesis. To allow my mind and body to connect so that I could determine how to use muscle and emotional memories of my dancing and singing to Motown as a young woman to keep my older psyche and health in check during lock down. Like the first time I heard and danced to Ain’t Too Proud to Beg by The Temptations.

Motown cake designed and baked by granddaughter Emma
Motown cake designed and baked by granddaughter Emma

I was at a New Orleans supper, or what could be described as a block party event to raise funds to keep a neighbor from being evicted or losing water and/or power during a rough streak. To hold a supper, neighbors went fishing and crabbing then cooked up the catch to serve with a side of someone’s donated potato salad or jambalaya and green peas. A plate of these foods sold for $1.00 or $1.50 with a Jax beer. Record players blasted and adults and children alike danced, tossed horse shoes, and played card games and dominoes late into the night. The memory spoke to me and said, “what a way to be your brother’s keeper.” Something that often enters my thought these days when I say, “Alexa, play Motown.” And when the music sets my body into motion, I remember what it felt like to live in a community that traded fun for heartbreak and disappointment. I wish this attitude could prevail in this pandemic when wearing a mask to slow the spread of a deadly disease is so contentious it can cause a riot. I tell myself that regardless, for the next hour, I can fill my soul with enough happy endorphins to suppress the anxiety I experience when my thoughts take me to a place where I fear I’m expendable because of my age, my race and my pre-existing condition. A place where my fellow Americans wear masks because they believe like I do, that it is an act of loving thy neighbor as thyself.

Like so many teenagers, I imitated the dance moves of the Four Tops. I was taunted and teased by family and friends for dancing like the proverbial "white girl", that is, without rhythm. My friend Lena’s retort on my behalf was, “what do you expect from a black girl with two black parents, born with blue eyes.” Despite the put downs, my attempts to move to the beat awakened a can-do energy that empowered me, buoyed by the fact that I had at least tried. According to my grandmother, nothing beats failing but trying. I’ve advanced into my own choreographed steps these days, tempered by knee bends and leg kicks conducive to aging bones, and by counting reps in twos rather than eight or ten to avoid confusing forgetful senior moments with Alzheimer symptoms.

One morning, after listening to pundits on Morning Joe detail the impact of school closings and the plight of small businesses in the shut down, I rushed to the garage. “Alexa, play Motown,” I ordered, hardly able to wait to hear the music, eager to feel the sadness those reports had instilled in me, to leave my soul, if only for an hour. As I watched myself dancing to Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch in the wall of mirrors my cousin, Curtis, had hung for me, I moved to the beat like I wish I’d moved when I was twenty. I smiled. Did I now have rhythm, or had I simply developed a new passion for dancing to overcome the impact of the plight of sickness that plagued so many? Either way, I marveled at my progress. The reflection of me stepping and twisting without inhibition jolted my self-esteem like a breath of fresh air. “I can dance,” I said.

Not for minute did I believe I was ready to join Beyonce on stage. Yet, this sense of accomplishment, whether a figment of my imagination or actual, in the moment, lent credibility to the notion that success is achievable with consistency and patience no matter the obstacles. And the confidence I garnered believing I have rhythm allowed me to incorporate into my psyche the perspective that this too shall pass by providing me a memory that demonstrates that I have the wherewithall I need to survive the COVID lock-down disillusionment one day at a time.

Me and shelter dog, Ginger
Me and shelter dog, Ginger

Sing-alongs were a great pastime for me and my friends growing up in the Magnolia housing project. Most of us couldn’t afford the ticket costs to attend concerts so we entertained ourselves by putting on pretend concerts. Motown lyrics, always relatable, were easy to memorize. To this day, those tunes compel me to sing along. Take Michael Jackson’s I’ll Be There. I feel like my young self every time I belt out the words, delighted that after 50 years I can still remember them as well as reach the high notes. Singing Motown tunes reassures me that my memory is still intact. Shows me that despite my age and the probabilty of becoming memory-challenged, as long as I can sing a song from the Motown hit list, I am not rocker-ready. And this reinforces my determination not to risk catching COVID. An attitufe that galvanizes my spirit as well as my commitment to stay home, convinced that if I do, I increase my chances to lift my voice in song for a long time to come.

Unfortunately, I am a news junkie. I say that because too offten knowing what's going on demoralizes me. Like when I wake to the news relaying rising death tolls, number of COVID infections and hospitalizations. But more often than not, when I say, Alexa, play Motown,” the stimulation from dancing removes the numbness of pain and anguish from my being, and replaces it with the inner strength to call upon empathy and hope for the many family and friends of those afflicted with this deadly virus. Attributes that I find are required to process COVID bad news spreading through society like jelly on bread. Remembering that I, along with others, have this particular respect for humanity, permits me to think optimistically about the future, including my future.

Me supporting my gray-haired COVID-fro.
Me sporting my gray-haired COVID-fro.

Knowing that I’m high risk to be killed by a contagious pandemic disease, my emotions run on overload, my energy zapped. However, I am heartened by the fact that Motown offers me a moment in time to shuck feeling vulnerable and puts me in a state of mind to remember what it feels like to be young, vibrant and invincible. Reminds me how dancing and singing provide a positive-response period in which to put things into perspective. Like it did the morning after I pretended to be Diana Ross singing Baby Love. I tossed the doom and gloom sedative that is the COVID reality show in exchange for inspiration to write, to work on book three of my mystery trilogy. Then there's the morning while listening to I Heard It Through the Grapevine, I miraculously remembered when to make the turn in the line dance I never mastered in my twenties giving my self-confidence the reject-COVID-melancholy boost needed to energize my desire to keep busy and diminish the debilitating woe-is-me feeling of loneliness.

Motown has always energized my body. COVID lock down has helped me understand how it affects my spirit and my psyche. Could it be that introspection is unavoidable when singing the lyrics Mercy, mercy me, things ain’t what they used to be? Maybe it’s because after an hour of dancing to Motown, I nearly reach my 10,000-step daily exercise goal without getting on the floor. I dread that inevitable day when I find it hard to get up after sit-ups. Or, perhaps it’s the mirrors, I don’t know. I love the visual of watching myself shaking my booty to the beat. Because in that moment, when I’m singing Dancing in the Street, for example, verse and chorus, or when my choreography is in step with the Temptations, I’m swept up in joy; in thoughts of what is possible. And later, when the actuality of COVID highlights my life's expectancy while limiting where I can go and who I can see and touch, memories, i.e. my childhood neighborhood, the people around me, how I felt interacting with them, wards off the letdown of feeling defenseless, overwhelmed by isolation. And I get through another day.


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