When I was very small–maybe three or four–I often had the unsettling feeling that I was standing at the precipice of sanity, just about to fall into a bottomless chasm of crazy. At least that’s how I characterize those feeling as an adult currently wading through middle age. At the time, it simply felt like I was being chased by big scary emotions–happy, sad, scared, angry–that were waiting to swallow me whole.
Now, of course, I have come to the conclusion that all toddlers are mentally unhinged. Part of the human growing and learning process, I guess? So I was normal. The only part that probably wasn’t normal was my self-awareness of said toddler insanity. Am I crazy? I would think, as I was carried out of Bambi or Charlotte’s Web, sobbing inconsolably as if the world had ended. My mother soon put an end to movies— “Until you’re older”–and also the Sunday night Disney shows about wildlife families (wolves, bears, deer, whatever) in which a baby was separated from its mother, then reunited a commercial-break later. It was Just. Too. Sad. Even Sesame Street had to go.
But here’s what couldn’t go: music. Music was the only thing that was everywhere, back in the day. You didn’t see movies playing in car DVD players. You didn’t see television blasting in every waiting room or nail salon or store window. But the radio was always on: in the car, in the coffee shop, at home. And I soon became obsessed with a song by John Denver called Sunshine on my Shoulders. Here is the first verse:
Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry
Sunshine on the water looks so lovely
Sunshine almost always makes me high
John Denver was pretty popular in the 70s (even before he was on The Muppets). I think my mom might have had a t-shirt with his face on it. He looked like a pretty nice guy to me: sweet, smiling, with straight blonde hair that was a little long and cut like mine. When he sang, he sounded like he understood me. Also: I liked anything that had to do with sunshine, since that was my last name (close enough). But what I liked most about the song was that it made me cry. But not uncontrollably. Just enough to be enjoyable. That little swell of the heart, that tiny tear falling from the corner of my eye. Every time I heard it on the radio, I would press myself up against the speaker, basking in the melancholy of the song. And finally, I asked my mother if I could HAVE THIS SONG. I needed it. I needed to hold it close and let it be all mine. And for some reason, she agreed. Maybe because it was so damn cute, but probably because I wouldn’t stop asking for it.
This was a big deal. We lived in a tiny town. I’m not even sure there was a record store. We had to drive to the nearest big city (Chico, if that tells you anything) and go to the mall. There, my mother bought me the 45 of the song. I don’t remember what was on the B-side. I’m sure it was my first record that wasn’t a read-along story or Captain Kangaroo collection of songs and jokes. A real single. All mine. Little kids had record players back then. Even three year-olds. And once we bought it, I had to wait the rest of the day AND the 35 minute drive home to listen to it.
But once I put it on the turntable and lowered the needle, it was just as wonderful as I remembered it from the radio. John Denver was singing this song about me. To me. I started to cry. I probably listened to it until my mother wanted to hurl the whole damn thing into the garbage. But a funny thing happened: the more I listened to it, the less it made me cry. There was something about listening to the sad song over and over again that gave me the power to control my emotions. I didn’t feel so crazy anymore. Eventually, I got bored of Sunshine on my Shoulders. I put it next to Captain Kangaroo and moved on to another obsession: a weird cover of the ballad One Tin Soldier.
Recently, I heard Sunshine on my Shoulders. It came up streaming in my Pandora station: singer-songwriters of the 1970s (an excellent station, by the way). It was amazing how moving the song still is. Sweet and sad and simple. It took me back to that record store in the mall, holding my mom’s hand as we walked through the aisles in search of my treasure. I still love things that make me cry. I still love that song. And when I heard it, out of the blue, I might have cried. Just a tiny bit.
Official Website of John Denver