I grab the first seat I can find on a Friday night eastbound LIRR train. I'm looking for a break from what my life feels like lately. I say this not as a testament to how bad my life is; in fact, I’ve lived the past year of my life waiting for the other shoe to drop, worried that the contentment I’ve found since returning home from my semester in Italy must be some sort of fluke. Happiness has an expiration date, I warn myself.
Despite my contentment in the past year, the little things inside my head—the little markers of February, my least favorite month of the year (read last year's February blogpost here if you're curious)—keep piling up. I am sick of a lingering Sunday evening feeling, sick of FiDi streets so crowded I can barely walk through them during lunch time, sick of talking and listening, sick of New York City's gluttony juxtaposed with its poverty, sick of reading new bad news on Twitter every single day, sick of answering text messages, sick of thinking about who I am and how I want to be perceived by my peers, and, finally, I got physically sick, as if my body and brain were perfectly in sync just this once.
All of these February-isms are what lead me to the Friday night train home, convinced that spending a weekend with my mom would make everything feel a little lighter and more manageable. I am aware the entire journey home of how lucky I am to be able to run to her. Of course, my gratitude didn’t stop me from rolling my eyes at paying nearly $30 for a one-way peak ticket to Riverhead. I’m only human.
I look up and immediately see an advertisement across from my cerulean pleather seat that reads, "This is my midterm," with a picture of a girl doing some sort of hands-on science project. In the bottom right hand corner I see the logo for Pace University. I roll my eyes. Sometimes it's difficult to escape who you are.
In the weeks leading up to this weekend I had been listening almost exclusively to Ariana Grande, which, I assured myself and my roommate, was simply for research purposes— I have to listen to this for my THESIS on POP music, ya know, not because I actually LIKE it or anything like that, I insisted as I rapped Nicki Minaj's feature in “Side To Side” under my breath for the hundredth time (did she just say “dick bicycle?!”).
But during this trip, rather than listen to Young Ariana Who Runs Pop, or something sentimental about going home like I normally would (Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” comes to mind, plus everything Ben Rector has ever written), I find myself compelled to listen only to Taylor Swift. I know what you’re thinking: when am I not listening to Taylor Swift? And that’s a fair question, especially if you knew me between the ages of 13 and 17. (By 17 I mean 19.) Because my reputation precedes me, I must clarify that I don’t turn to my All Taylor Swift playlist as often as you probably imagine. And that is an actual playlist on my iPod, not just a metaphor. It's labeled ATS, which is casual enough that onlookers wouldn’t know what it stands for (my friend Joe has called her "a polarizing topic" lately), but it still always shows up first alphabetically.
Although I don’t depend on my ATS playlist as much as I did when I was 14—and that is a healthy part of not only growing up but also just becoming a more emotionally stable human being in general—I still know it’s always there, sitting at the very top of my playlists. It remains a constant in my ever-shifting life, just like it was at this time several years ago when I felt my world falling apart around me and found myself leaning on it hard, which is when my love for music began.
I turn on “Forever & Always” and internalize its relatively simple (though not mediocre) melody, story, and production (“I stare at the phone, he still hasn’t called and then you feel so low you can’t feel nothing at all”). I begin to think back to the way I and millions of other adolescent girls turned to Taylor Swift’s music during our formative years. We showed up to her concerts wearing sundresses and cowboy boots and curled our hair in ways it didn't want to be curled and painted the number 13 on the backs of our hands and screamed and sang along with the teenager on stage who we believed was just like us. We came by the millions looking for an escape.
I try to figure out what pulled so many of us to the songwriting of a slightly awkward, mostly moderate, openly nerdy high school student. Teenage girls are told constantly that they are too dramatic, too moody, too emotional. Regardless of whether or not teenage girls actually are any more dramatic, moody, and emotional than any other demographic—which is impossible to assume in a world where boys are taught from birth to suppress their emotions lest their Man Cards are revoked—the feelings of teenage girls are important just because they are. Just because they’re important to them. We were looking for someone to validate our feelings.
Enter: Taylor Swift, who wrote about having an unrequited crush on the boy who sat next to her in class, about feeling invisible, about coming undone, about expecting fairy tale endings and being let down when they didn’t come true, about waiting for a revolution, about being left out, about feeling fifteen and then suddenly not anymore.
And she was taken seriously, for the most part. If her albums' accolades and ticket sales were any indication, she was considered a true singer-songwriter, and she demanded to be validated in a way that teenage girls almost never are. When we came in crowds by the thousands to her shows, we were proving to her and to ourselves and to popular culture at large that teenage girls wanted validation for their emotions and were willing to show up for it. And it was incredible to witness. How lucky were we to be a part of that?
Now, and in most Februarys, I can feel remnants of that teenage angst creep back up on me. I'm getting better at dealing with it, though. When I was 18, I got my hands on a flash drive full of my sister Melanie’s writing from college. I related far too much to a piece she wrote called, “Life Rage.” The essay begins with her stating how much she hates whole wheat pretzels, and ends with the conclusion that the road rage most people experience while driving on the Belt Parkway is a part of her everyday demeanor; she called this “life rage.” Melanie and I were born 7 years apart, which means that we hated each other for the first 16 years of my life. But as we’ve gotten older, the similarities between us have become conspicuous. I felt validated when I read that piece, as if the bitterness that took over my life during my freshman year maybe wasn’t all my fault after all. Maybe I wasn’t doing something wrong if someone else felt that way, too.
"Life rage subsides as you get older. It's something to look forward to," Melanie told me in 2013 after I read her piece. She said it in a text message I still remember vividly, precisely because of how angry and life-rage-y it made me. She had taken away the validation she didn’t know she had given me. And she was right, even though her high and mighty position in that moment pissed me off astronomically. I am glad she was right about that, and she will be glad to read this, because there is literally nothing she likes more than being told she is right. Consider this an early birthday present, Mel. This is her favorite form of validation.
During my sophomore year I was a business major for a single semester. The left-brain curriculum kept the writer in me starving for a creative outlet. I worked as a desk attendant in the freshman dorm building from 11 pm to 2 am every Thursday night and during this shift I would write poetry and lyrics and creative nonfiction in an attempt to fill the void that Accounting 203 was carving in my brain. I'd send the pieces I wrote to my friend, also a writer, whom I forced to stay up until 2 am along with me every week as we messaged back and forth from a state away. We would swap our finished pieces (and our works in progress) and follow up with detailed reviews, fawning over each other's prose, asking for the stories behind each line, validating each other endlessly. Validating each other’s most personal writing made us comfortable with accepting our own emotions, as we were still working, at age 19, to overcome everything we’d ever been taught about the value of teenage girls’ feelings.
During this time, when I wanted inspiration, I would open up the flash drive of Melanie’s writing. I'd read through her graduate school thesis over and over again until I could hear her words in her voice in my head on command. I'd take the format she wrote in—mostly from assignments given to her by her professors when she was studying English and Writing—and I'd input my own stories while sitting in my macroeconomics lecture hall. An essay listing all the places she'd read Mrs. Dalloway became all the places I'd listened to the Fearless album. Her open letter to Virginia Woolf became my open letter to Sylvia Plath. I was writing only because I felt like I needed to, not for a grade or publication or anything else, which made me seek validation that I was doing something valuable. Putting my emotions into a format already approved by my big sister and her professors validated me and my words and all the time I spent crafting them, only to leave them still sitting in a folder on my Mac labeled “Writing.”
Escapism isn't always easy, but I think I've gotten better at finding my way to it throughout the Februarys. Tonight, after my dad picks me up from the train station, I'm going to watch a terrible Lifetime movie with my mom and snack on grapes and Brie cheese. We’ll laugh at and mock and criticize whatever movie she has recorded for us—it’s safe to say it will have something to do with an evil twin, abusive boyfriend, or murderous wife, or some combination of the three if we’re really lucky—and it will give us an escape from our Februarys. Then we’ll watch a second one, just because we can. Tomorrow at noon, Nanny will come over and I’ll hug her nearly 6-foot frame until it hurts us both. I’ll feel the raw February air, still cool on her long black coat, up against my cheek as I grab my own wrists behind her back. Then my mom, Nanny, and I will go to Caruso’s for lunch and get slices of pizza and a large Greek salad to share. Nanny will ask me about everything she can think of—my classes, my roommates, how far my walk to school is, how far my walk to the grocery store is and whether or not I want her to look at yard sales in the spring for one of those collapsible metal shopping carts, my graduate school plans, my friends from Riverhead, and, of course, the latest rumor she heard about Taylor Swift on TMZ. As I answer her questions—talking so much that she and my mom end up waiting an extra 20 minutes for me to finish my pizza—I know she will look me right in the eyes in the way that only she can, and I will feel validated once again. By Monday, I will be ready to go back to reality. And probably back to Ariana Grande's album.