Dealing with grief

Step 0

Never seen the waves so high

 

eating at the pebbled shore

sinking salty teeth down

and pulling, heaving

the haplessly loose out and away

 

Gulls mass, those little anarchists

stringless kites in the roar

unflapping in their pursuit

of risky but effortless air

 

and I’m standing here

 

I am standing here

 

planting my feet in sea-licked stones

to become a place

where the wind and the water

and the rattling land meet

 

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The music and the noise

I’ve got music back. I can’t believe I ever let it slip out of my life. But I did, I lost it for years.

How did I lose it in the first place? That is a tricky one, but ultimately I cared too much about what other people thought. It started with not feeling entitled to like certain bands or kinds of music, despite being drawn to them, because I wasn’t as ‘dedicated’ or as fucked up as some of the other people who were into the same stuff. Then at some point in my early twenties, a certain kind of connoisseurship started to creep into the way people talked about music. You had to have such and such an album, you couldn’t possibly claim to like so and so if you’d never heard their more obscure influences. And you definitely could not own, let alone listen to, the dreaded ‘popular’ stuff. Heard it on the radio? Throw it in the bin. Way too commercial.

Moving in with a music nerd did not help. He never set out to make me feel uncomfortable, but I did. He had the ‘right’ CD collection, which was about four times as large as mine. He was the one people talked to music about. He was the one who got to choose the tunes when people were over. I just gave up, bowed to what I presumed was his superior knowledge and taste. I even stopped playing guitar. Which breaks my heart to think about now, because none of this really came explicitly from him. It was just there, this sense that he was entitled to music and I wasn’t.

It got the point where I wouldn’t put music on even when I was asked to. One evening really sticks in my head. I worked up the courage – seriously, courage – to put an album on, only to have him and a friend ask ‘what is this shit?’ This wasn’t a typical response from him, but that pretty much put me off playing tunes for people for years. (It was Ladyhawke, in case you’re interested – I’m not ashamed anymore!)

All of this also coincided with the rise of iTunes and mp3s and Spotify and the decimation of record stores. I’ve always been a browser, be it in shops or through a collection, choosing things on whims rather than knowing precisely what I want to buy or listen to. Two things happened with the emergence of iTunes et al. First, I felt deeply disconnected and disadvantaged when it came to finding and choosing music. Having it all organised for me in a library or online store left me – and still leaves me – at a loss. I need the randomness of the physical, the visual and sensual information to help me make choices. Shuffle does nothing for me either. I cannot explain it, but there’s something clinical, hygienic, cold, about having music neatly arranged on computer that leaves me feeling disempowered. At the same time, people were mocking those of us who were paying for music through official channels rather than digging it out of online crevices. I felt simultaneously overwhelmed, disempowered and like I was being conned.

Then my iTunes flipped out and deleted my entire library – purchased tunes and my entire CD collection which I’d diligently uploaded. All gone. For no apparent reason. Nowhere to be found.

I gave up. By this point, it was such a struggle to get to music that I’d forgotten why I liked it in the first place. I even stopped listening to my CDs. It either felt like music was a money-making scheme or something that I was not capable of appreciating because I had neither the knowledge nor taste to equip me for it.

I played classical piano for 8 years. I taught myself guitar. I’d been avidly into all kinds of music since I was eleven. And by twenty-eight, I felt like I wasn’t entitled to even listen to music. How did it get to this? Because I stopped listening to the music and instead listened to all the chatter about it. The harder it became for me to access my music, the louder the chatter got. Until I only heard the chatter and nothing else.

But when my world turned upside down, when I realised the damage I’d done to my entire life by listening to the chatter of others rather than to my own instincts, music was there to catch me.

In the darkest weeks after my eleven year relationship ended, I kept the lights and radio on when I went to bed. I couldn’t face the dark or the silence, not least because sleep was pretty elusive. One morning, I woke up 4am, already sobbing, just as ‘Pacifier’ by Catfish and the Bottlemen came on. And it caught me. ‘You know I try to fail, but you just don’t know how it feels to lose something you never had and never will.’ It caught me when I was falling into another pit. Because someone else knew what that pit looked like.

I got my ears back after that. Suddenly I could hear what I was experiencing in lyrics and tunes everywhere. I wasn’t listening to it theoretically anymore. I got it. I wasn’t worrying about taste or expertise or the latest release. I got it. And suddenly I remembered why I loved music before opinions and technology got in the way. Or more accurately, I remembered how to love music.

It feels like finding a forgotten piece of myself.

Fuck the chatter. And fuck the constantly updating, buggy technology that interferes with me getting to my collection. The grin on my face as I dance alone like a lunatic with my headphones on. The goosebumps I get when my writing and the music I’m listening to come together. The peace that comes after improvising on guitar or piano. That’s what it’s about. Everything else is just noise.

Peace and writing

I haven’t been writing. Or to be precise, I’ve been producing scraps, disconnected fragments that work on their own but that won’t lead anywhere. There’s a quality of concentration that’s left me recently, about the same time that the irrepressible urge to get things out of me once and for all faded into something fainter and more manageable. At the same time, the spits and flecks of ink I get on to the page are lingering on moments that rapidly become too unbearable to tarry with: I can only consider these aching instances for so long before I feel like I am sadistically unpicking my own peace of mind. I keep coming back to the question ‘What is the good of poking this memory with a pointed stick?’

It’s frustrating, because writing brings with it a calmness that has been getting me through and it’s a form of calm that I haven’t found anywhere else. I get a clarity of concentration, a focus that can’t be replicated even if you’re trying – meditation, yoga, prayer, they can’t offer me the immersive solace that a good writing session can for me. I can turn over terrible, horrific events, images, ideas and feel their impact deeply, fully, to the point that I cannot bear it (an idea which I am increasingly fascinated by – bearing the unbearable) and at the same time, let these thoughts and emotions flow through me to create something. Creating out of pain, producing something from the void, sculpting the darkness.

It’s a method of acceptance, I suppose, but it’s not like any other form I’ve tried. Partly because it’s not about making a peace or a pact with the darkness. It’s more like I’m mobilising it in a different way, deliberately stirring it so that I can mould it to fit a purpose that’s half way between its agenda and my own. Because it does have an agenda; to eat away at my wellbeing, to creep around the edges of my life and then gently squeeze until I wake up one day to realise my world has once again become a tiny sliver of what it once was. Acceptance, or recognising that shadows are part of my day to day are key for starting to push back and open up my world again – but I struggle with the notion of acceptance as making peace.

Peace is an incredibly appealing idea. Being entirely at rest with yourself. Being completely alive to this moment now and not letting the moments before or to come press in on the pleasure of this instant. Being able to sleep and eat and be spontaneous without guilt or fear. And I know this, because I’ve had and have moments of peace, perhaps more recently that I’ve ever had before. But this is where I hit a paradox.

I get these moments dotted across my week, usually unexpected, vivid and often illuminating. But the greatest peace I experience comes when I am writing, and in the immediate aftermath of writing. It’s almost like fantastic sex, except the quality of the adrenalin is different. It’s not peace like any other; it’s absorption rather than acceptance, it’s giving yourself over entirely to what is passing through you rather than embracing and pulling things towards you. And I need that pointed stick to crack the crust of acceptance and stir things into motion in order to let things pass through me and beyond me onto the page. Which means my favourite form of peace comes from my pain.

Which can make things pretty unbearable, and the unbearable can leave you voiceless, silent, spitting fragments as your larynx splinters under the pressure.

I’ve got to figure out a way to live with this, because I’m not going to give up my pointed stick.

Some thoughts on an anniversary

Last weekend marked a year since we lost our home, which in turn marked the start of the gradual disintegration of ‘we’ back into ‘I’.

It’s been the longest year of my life and at the same time, it still feels as if everything happened last weekend. So much has happened, changed and not happened, not changed. There’s no reason a year should yield up particular wisdom, why a year after closing the front door on my old life that I should have any remarkable insights or life-changing advice. But it’s an anniversary and there are some thoughts in my head, so here we go:

1) The storm is part of me. It does not need to pass.

2) Thinking about writing is way more painful that writing.

3) Getting fitter made me feel better. Getting thinner made me feel worse.

4) Happy endings, just deserts and karma are fairy tales. If you turn to these ideas for comfort, if you offer those who are in the darkest moments of their lives these fairy tales as wisdom, you are denying the rawness and madness of suffering. Pain does not happen for a reason; to give it one by tying the pretty bow of narrative around it is to leave those in pain alone, silent and scared.

5) Time alone won’t make things better; it’s what you do with the time that starts to create the distance between you and what happened. New memories start to cushion you from the old.

6) Things do get better, but never in the way you expect and if you’re too wrapped up in fairy tales, you won’t notice.

7) Silence is the worst thing you can do to someone in pain. ‘Giving someone space’ when they haven’t asked you for it is the excuse we make when we are too afraid to face the vastness of suffering. If you don’t know what to say, find the person, phone the person, write to the person and tell them that you don’t know what to say. There is nothing to say in the face of trauma, grief, sorrow. But being there, being a presence, recognising the unspeakableness of what someone is facing, that is how you help people start to find their way back from the formless mess that’s swallowed their lives. Your presence and words alone are enough to start anchoring someone’s world again. Silence is the worst thing you can do, because you leave them at sea. Don’t give people space. Give them your speechlessness.

8) People are awesome, in the proper sense of the word. People will find ways to let you down, to twist a knife, to destroy the most basic foundations that let you exist in this world which are so beyond the horizons of what you can image that before the rage and pain can kick in, you are left winded and opened-mouthed in awe. People will find ways to reach into your darkest hour and hold your hand, will pull you into the safety of their lives when you’re spiralling off into danger, will make the smallest gesture that somehow captures what it means to be cared for and to care. It’s a quieter, gentler awe, but it’s equally breath-taking. What a fucking spectrum.

9) Leaving Facebook has done my mental health and my friendships a world of good.

10) Anniversaries mean fuck all.