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The Rolling Stones “Shattered” was stuck in my head all weekend long, not all of it, just a few bars, just enough to be maddening. Not the first time, nor will it be the last, for me to fall prey to an “earworm.” I’m not alone. It turns out, according to psychologist Dr. Victoria Williams that 90% of people experience this “involuntary musical imagery” at least once a week, whereby “a tune comes into the mind and repeats without conscious control.” There are other words for it too according to the International Conference on Music and Cognition website – Dr. Oliver Sacks calls it  “sticky music” or “brain worms,” Dr. James Kellaris describes it as a “cognitive itch,” which, he suggests may be relieved by singing aloud the mental tune. Dr. Daniel Levitin, who studies the neuroscience of music, refers to it as “stuck song syndrome.”  Levitin also points out that “the songs that get stuck in people’s heads tend to be melodically and rhythmically simple.” Not to diminish the genius of Jagger and Richards, “Shattered” is not a complex tune. Then again, the same might well be said of the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Because music memory is unconscious, so effortless, researchers like Dr. Williamson are fascinated by the implications of understanding it, hoping that if they can better understand why some songs “stick” more than others, they might also find that music memory could help treat patients who suffer from memory loss. Williamson tells NPR’s Jon Donvon that because songs are typically recalled with such accuracy, “this tells us something about the automaticity of musical memory and its power as a tool for learning . . .  imagine if we could recall facts that we wanted as easily as we can bring new ones to mind without even trying.” Imagine, indeed. Anyone interested in learning more about the music in their head, can visit The Earwormery to participate in research studies being conducted by a team at Goldsmiths, University of London and BBC 6Music.

Back to the Rolling Stones and “Shattered.” I know what caused this “cognitive itch.” It began with a random email from my brother, which in part, read as follows:

… it’s easy, given the antics of The Rolling Stones in their dotage, to forget what a brilliantly bratty, snottily subversive band they once were. Today, the workings of the shuffle function on my iPod unexpectedly presented me with ‘Shattered’ from ‘Some Girls‘. What a great song! I recall once reading an interview with the New York songwriter Ed Hammell. He recalls being in a bar in Manhattan just a couple of days after 9/11. There was a disco in the bar, and people were dancing to the usual floor-filling favorites, probably trying to forget about the horror of terrorists having blown the heart out of their city. ‘Shattered’ came on, its pumping, driving rhythm prompting whoops and hollers and dancing, until that line which Mick Jagger delivers with the utmost indifferent cheek, “Life an’ joy an’ sex an’ dreams are still surviving on the streets, an’ look at me . . . I’m in tatters. I’m shattered . . .” and within seconds those on the dance floor were embracing each other tightly and weeping uncontrollably. And the way they stayed so, until the song ended, struck Hammell as one of his saddest and yet most affirming memories of post 9/11 New York.

Well, little brother of mine, so far away from New York City and even farther away from Limerick, Ireland, I decided to visit Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza to pause a while by the 9-11 memorial and to remember again when I first heard about those planes crashing with such force into the heart of New York city. It had been a clear blue morning there, the city’s skyline sparkling in the sunshine, as it was here in Phoenix. I had just dropped Sophie off at pre-school, not yet fully aware of the horror that, by day’s end, would envelope us all.

Until the morning of September 11, 2001, I had taken for granted the sense of security I felt as a woman who had traded in Northern Ireland for America. Such naïvety. I had forgotten that anything can happen. I had grown complacent. Confident. Over-confident that – unlike her mother – my little American girl would never catch herself looking twice at an unattended shopping bag forgotten by someone who was merely in a hurry, or find herself standing stock still with her shoes off and her arms over her head while an airport security guard frisks her or wonder while poring over international headlines, how a complete stranger could hate her because of her nationality.

But anything can happen – it always does.

Anything Can Happen by Seamus Heaney

After Horace, Odes, I, 34

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
and the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleading on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid.
Capstones shift. Nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

Anything can happen.

Coming into focus is a stark and sobering reminder of this truth, the diminutive and solitary piece of a steel beam salvaged from the World Trade Center. Far from home, it is now a part of Phoenix, Arizona, a memorial to all who perished in those cataclysmic attacks on America on September 11, 2001. The concrete on which it sits at Wesley Bolin Plaza is mixed with rubble from the Pentagon and earth from Shanksville, Pennsylvania where Flight 93 plowed into an empty field.

From 10 o’clock in the morning until 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the predictable rays of Phoenix sunshine pierce unforgettable etchings, messages laser-cut on a sweeping canopy of steel, thereby illuminating on the great circle of concrete directly below, a moving sequence of dates, times, events, and emotions. Thus, “Moving Memories” appear and disappear with the sun.

Moving always.

Lest we forget.

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