Driving With James Taylor

(A Personal Reflection I put on my LinkedIn profile in 2018, which now seems like a lifetime ago; not a medical topic but a piece about who I am.)

Saturday morning, Memorial Day weekend: I pat the barn animals as I leave our 1790 farmhouse through the attached barn and garage. The air smells salty as I close the garage door and glance at my Swedish vanity place. I climb into my big, white European SUV, built in America, start the V8 engine and let the wipers clear the mist off the windshield. 

National Public Radio doesn’t have a news program on Saturdays, so I decide to play a James Taylor album from 1971. I have it on LP, CD and now also on my iPhone and iPad. The music starts belting out through the Harman-Kardon speakers: “Don’t come to me with your sorrows anymore…”, the first song on “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon”.

I still remember the first time I heard this album. I was at my girlfriend’s house back in Sweden. It was the spring of the year I later went to the U.S. as an exchange student. Her older brother came storming into the living room and said “You’ve got to hear this album”. I had never heard of James Taylor. I had dropped out of violin lessons a few years earlier and taught myself to play guitar, and I was all into folk music like Peter, Paul and Mary. My renditions of “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” were starting to earn me a place beyond the mere bookworms, but the music I now heard was way beyond anything I had tried to copy before.

My girlfriend listened with approval, if not enthusiasm, but when her brother and I turned the record over again to Side One to start playing it a second time, she left the room and joined her sister. Her brother and I settled back and listened again. I was mesmerized by the melancholy melodies, the almost-bossa-nova strumming rhythm and the conga-like percussion. This music was contemporary America, the country I already knew I was in love with, a country full of individuality and both optimism and soulfulness.

The winding country road I drive to work is empty of traffic. There is a faint morning sunshine filtering through a light haze. The mountains of Mount Desert Island create a jagged blue horizon across the water. As I listen to “You’ve Got a Friend” I reflect on how I don’t feel 47 years older than when I first heard that song and figured out the chords to it. And the next song, “Places in My Past”, sums up a few sentiments from my own life as it has evolved since then.

I think of how strange and yet natural it is that this introverted boy from Sweden ended up living in America. I have lived here much longer than I lived in Sweden. My Swedish passport expired a couple of years ago, and I can go months without uttering, or even thinking, a word in Swedish. 

My home is here in America, in two places, an old white farmhouse in Downeast Maine and a little red cottage in Caribou, not far from the 1870’s colony of New Sweden, within hiking distance of Canada and right next to Amish country in Fort Fairfield. 

I drive past Noel (Paul) Stookey’s house. How odd, my teen musical hero before James Taylor, right on my way to work. I even see him in the hardware or grocery store sometimes. 

On the album’s hypnotic title track, James Taylor sings “Now the reason I’m smiling is over on an island, on a hillside in the woods where I belong”. I am at home on a narrow peninsula and on the edge of the northern woods, both places reminiscent of Sweden but very much American. 

The road winds a bit inland and my thoughts and emotions keep jumping back and forth between me at eighteen and now about to turn Medicare age. I have read that the music you hear between the ages of 17 and 23 stays with you the rest of your life. It has indeed. When I was 23, he released “In the Pocket”, and, if I have to be honest, maybe after “JT” when I was 24, I didn’t feel quite the same tug in my heart every time I listened to one of his new albums, but I always bought them and enjoyed them, because we grew up together and he sang quite eloquently about so much of what I felt. 

As I pull into the staff parking lot, the short last song, “Isn’t it Nice to Be Home Again” is playing. I turn off the engine and leave the music on until it ends. I have driven 30 miles, listened to 13 songs in 37 minutes and in my mind traversed 3,500 miles and 47 very short years.

1 Response to “Driving With James Taylor”

  1. 1 Larry Halverson August 4, 2020 at 6:33 am

    I enjoyed this post Doc. I am a retired family doc with scandinavian ancestors and I recently wrote a biography about a country doctor of Swedish descent. You might enjoy the book available at https://www.publishingconceptsllc.com/product/windblown/.

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