Early in my life, I noticed a pattern.

Whenever I’d meet older adults, those in my parents’ demographic, our interactions would follow a predictable course. We’d exchange names, and then I’d look down, both because I was shy and because I knew what was coming next.

They would start singing.

At a conservative estimate, this happened about 70% of the time.

Of course, what they’d sing was the opening line to the chorus of, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond. In case you’ve been living under a rock, it goes like this: “Sweet Caroline … bum bum BUM!”

The bum bum BUMs are instrumental, which I did not realize for many years, because until college I never actually heard a recording of the song. I just heard people singing that one line at me.

The song seemed to make people happy, but I had no idea how to respond. I mean, what is the appropriate reply to, “Bum bum BUM”?

I still haven’t figured it out, so I just smile.

The one song that changes everything

Family visit, 2015

Sweet Caroline?

Nowadays, when I meet people younger than me, they tend to sing the opening lines to Outkast’s, “Roses” (“Caroline! Caroline!”). Alas, the rest of lyrics are less than flattering.

Really, if people feel that they need to sing me something, my vote is for David Gray’s “Caroline”. It’s catchy and a little weird but sweet. (Any song that includes a line about “a steel-eyed dinosaur” is a winner in this would-be childhood paleontologist’s book.)

And until recently, I didn’t know that my beloved Fleetwood Mac also has a “Caroline” song. Again, the lyrics are less than flattering, but I like it anyway. It has a fun late 1980’s sound, as though the group decided to do a jam session in a harem.

But let’s get back on track with the story.

During my freshman year at Vassar, my roommates finally played a recording of “Sweet Caroline”. As they pressed play, I held my breath, wondering how I’d feel to hear this song at last.

Yet listening to it was an oddly neutral experience. As it turned out, I didn’t have a strong emotional connection to the song that people had been singing at me my whole life. It was a nice song, it just didn’t seem to belong to me.

And that’s when I understood what I’d really been hoping to hear.

The One Song that Changes Everything

Like most college freshman, I felt adrift. I hadn’t found my people yet. I was longing for connection, for the feeling of being seen and known.

As such, I didn’t want a popular song, even one with my name in it. I wanted my song, the one my mother wrote for me.

My mom wrote songs for me and my brother Willie when we were babies. And even though I know that many parents do this, the fact that my mom wrote me a song still makes me feel special, held, loved.

It’s a simple song, a lullaby: “Caroline, Caroline / Oh that little girl of mine / From the start / You stole my heart / And oh, I love you Caroline.”

There are a few more verses. My favorite line? “When you smile, it’s all worthwhile.”

This song has been an emotional touchstone. Growing up, my mom would sing a few lines when I most needed comforting. When I failed a pop quiz, when my heart was broken, my mom sang my song. And no matter the crisis, some deep part of me could always settle down once I heard it.

Each time, it helped me to feel the love that has surrounded me since before I was born. I always needed the reminders. After all, it’s easy to take constant, fundamental love for granted.

Caroline and Willie clowning around, 2015

Brother and sister clowning around, 2015

Generic or Personal?

In addition to the “Bum bum BUM” in “Sweet Caroline,” another thing that used to puzzle me was how people would respond to Zephaniah 3:17: “He will rejoice over you with singing.”

Whenever I heard that verse, I always felt … unmoved. I’d been to church enough to know that lots of people really resonated with it, but it just didn’t speak to me. It was like something in a greeting card, a line trying too hard to be evocative.

But recently, I was turning that verse over in my mind, and I substituted a feminine pronoun: “She will rejoice over you with singing.”

And that little change did the trick. For the first time, I could hear that verse with my heart, because I could connect it to a lived experience.

It was the difference between hearing “Sweet Caroline” and hearing my mother’s song, the difference between generically nice and intensely personal.

I slip into believing that God barely tolerates me, because often I barely tolerate me. It’s tempting to believe that voice in my head that tells me that I don’t measure up. But my mother’s song and my dad’s acts of service both tell a very different story. They point to unconditional welcome and love.

So here’s what I hear that verse saying now:

“From the start, you stole My heart. When you smile, it’s all worthwhile.” Translation: the divine Presence is crazy about you. God says yes to you, exactly as you are.

This truth is like the air you breathe in that it has always surrounded you. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t powerful, isn’t precious, isn’t everything.


Do people sing a song with your name in it when you first meet? (I know I’m not the only one!) Or do you have one song that changes everything? Join the conversation in the comments.

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