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.

The Knot

I suppose this is a reformulation of my previous post, but I’ve been digging around inside my struggle and think I’ve turned up ways of giving shape to what I’m pushing against.

In the simplest terms, it’s nothing revolutionary. It’s that hackneyed trope of mental health versus creative impulse, in that the two don’t always sit comfortably together. That in itself is nothing new to anyone, and not new to me personally – I started writing poetry at one of life’s low points, and watched my ideas dry up as my world got sunnier again. Which also says something about the kind of work I was producing: stream-of-conscious, self-involved, very profound for me but maybe not so much fun for others to read. And there’s an element of that to this blog as well; my mission was – is – to get myself writing and to write my way into a new place. If other people find what I say interesting or useful, that’s encouraging and starting to show me where I’m doing things right – so thank you! But really, it’s been for me. My space to write, to think, to become something else.

And it’s been working. I’m starting to turn my attention outward again, shifting my focus from writing for me to thinking about the fact that other eyes might be absorbing these words. Or that I might want other eyes to glance over my scribblings. This is the beginnings of one strand leading into the knot that I’m trying to untangle. One of the revelations I’ve had from getting into a writing habit after all these years of procrastinating is that my refusal to draw on my own experiences was actually stopping my writing. I kept fishing around for that perfect idea for a piece of fiction, waiting for the inspiration fairy to sprinkle the start of an astonishing poem or novel over me.

But fishing and fairies didn’t work, partly because I have a very low tolerance for clumsy fiction. McGuffins, forced plot lines, cheesy motives and morals, anything that shows the scaffolding propping up the scenery (unless it’s done deliberately – interesting . . .) exasperates me. So my own ideas for fiction have been exasperating me for years, to the point of preventing my pen reaching the page. Then, boom, revelation came – not from the inspiration fairy, but from making myself writing on a regular basis. Of course my attempts at fiction were frustratingly poor! How could I think they were anything but hollow, heartless efforts at ego-massage when real life had thrown much weirder, darker and more interesting things at me? How can anything I make up have blood in it when life’s given me experiences you couldn’t make up if you tried?

That has been a watershed, but it’s also left me the problem of translation, of transition. How do I turn real life into a fiction that means something to people who aren’t me? Or even more concisely, how do I turn life into fiction?

Which leads me to another strand feeding into the knot. How to be honest.

I’ve been to the depths these past couple of years. Both in terms of my mental health, but also in terms of losing the structures and faith that keep most of us going through the day. I know I’m not the only one. And I know a lot of this is now behind me. But it is a precious knowledge you gain from swirling around in the chaos beneath the day-to-day, precious knowledge that starts to dissolve or recede as ‘normal’ life washes in again. It alters you, yes. I’m just not the same person I was this time two years ago. But that alteration doesn’t necessarily preserve the knowledge, the wisdom you get from being in the dust-bowl beneath it all.

I can feel knowledge fading and I don’t want it to dissipate. I’m having mad urges to tattoo my entire body with symbols and slogans, snippets from the chaos, so that I can always keep it close; but I know it’s going and without it, those tattoos will be just ordinary ink. So I want to use this other ink to capture it, to pass on some of that precious knowledge. But it’s wordless, it’s chaos. It inherently lacks narrative and structure. And how the hell do you avoid stream-of-consciousness, self-involved, wallowing-in-my-own-agonies writing when it comes to trying to describe something like this? This is another part of my knot.

I have to push and pull myself through these questions, because I don’t have a choice anymore. I have to be honest. In a world full of bullshit, fiction has to be honest.

And then it comes back to my mental health. Trying to look at things honestly takes its toll. It doesn’t leave you much room for solace or self-compassion. And lurking with your darker experiences is perhaps best done under supervision. But then the thought of writing anything that is less than excoriatingly honest makes me drop the pen again. Another strand in this big fuck-off knot.

Pigeon Residue

Into the heck

of my day-dream driven march

breaks this pigeon leg,

lying in the middle of the alleyway.

This livid-pink scaled foot,

camply poised, missing a counter-part

but counter-pointed by a gristly fan

of tendons, shredded body-meat, exposed bone.

Blood and feathers give me pause,

a moment with this residue of a bird,

a smear of a fantasy of flight

and the lost blue of possibility.

Amputated, grounded, wingless,

It’s just another addition

to the shit and wrappers

flapping in the alley.

I think this is where I will lay us down

so I can carry on into my day

unburdened.

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.

Waking up

There’s a moment in grieving when you become aware that the clouds are starting to lift. Maybe it’s that you make it to the end of the day and then realise that you managed to become totally absorbed in that day, that for once your attention wasn’t split between the present and the past. Maybe it’s that you suddenly find yourself doing something that haven’t done for a really long time, like laughing with all of your body or giving yourself over to enthusiasm. Maybe it just didn’t hurt as much today. Whatever the sign, there’s a reason that people talk about clouds lifting – it’s clichéd because that is exactly what it feels like. Something huge is quietly shifting, and you get a reminder of what life felt like before this fuzzy, dulled sensation settled over your world. It really does feel like a shaft of light or a fresh breeze has broken through the fog.

Which is disconcerting, and in fact comes with its own set of mournings. As painful and muffling as the fog is, there is a comfort to it. It lets you pass through days in a state of suspension, allows you to tarry with the life you had even though time is pushing you forwards. It insists that you are gentle with yourself and that normal world rules don’t apply to you at present. It cushions you, acts as a buffer between the past and your future.

So when the clouds start to lift, it’s a bitter-sweet experience. The first evening I got so engrossed in a conversation that I forgot I was grieving, I burst into tears the instant I realised what had happened. I was overwhelmed by a sense of disloyalty, of not being ready to move on, and shock. But even more than that, I was sad that I was starting to let go. It’s like grieving for your grief. And it’s a different kind of sadness, one that’s mixed with a profound sense of peace. I guess this is how we mark the past genuinely moving away from us.

As bleak and aching as the past months have been, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m eager to rush into the gaps emerging between the clouds. After all, it means giving up that sense of suspension, of life being on hold and getting back into the swing and mundanity of everyday life. I know this is perhaps not the case for everyone, but there has been something profoundly productive in this hovering state for me. I have unravelled myself and started to remake myself and my world in ways that I never thought possible for someone like me. Actual loss has released me from the fear of having something to lose. Life is too short to worry about invented consequences.

So I’m not in a hurry to leave this foggy landscape and life solidifying into something definite again. And I’m not in a rush to expose myself to press and callous bumps of normal life either – I want to insist on my fragility for a while longer. But it’s not entirely in my hands, because once the clouds start to shift, they start to evaporate all of their own accord.

The other cliché that crops up time and again because it’s captured a grain of truth is the image of waking up, of having slept-walked your way through the painful months and then gradually becoming aware of your world again. For me, this also encapsulates my current reluctance to rush into the next moment. I’m starting to sense the coming day, I’m beginning to feel the possibilities of that day, but I’m not quite ready to get up yet. I want to slumber a little longer, stay in the familiarity of my mourning, my fog, my dreams, as aching as they have been, so I can carry something of this strange moment into the day that’s breaking over me.

The need to be gentle with myself and with other people. The freedom to remake yourself, to remain unfixed. The time to pay attention to what matters to you in the silent parts of yourself. The ability to put the push of the world in its place when you need to. The astonishing quality of love you’ve discovered in the most unexpected places. And the loss of fear. I want to take these with me, carry them out of the fog and into the day. So I’m going to spend a bit more time experiencing them, learning them, living them, before I completely wake up.

Starting to start over

I’ve officially started over. I’m in a new city, in a new house, with two new jobs and a bundle of freelance work. It is terrifying and exhilarating and also very, very ordinary.

Having lost a home and had an awful experience with my last job, it feels incredibly good to be working again and being out of my parents’ home, able to support myself again. The moment I moved in to my new teeny-tiny room in a beautiful, welcoming shared home, a huge weight of anxiety lifted and a level of self-respect that I hadn’t realised I had lost returned in a rush. Starting my new jobs felt positive – challenging but rewarding having responsibility again and great to have some structure to my time again. And both in my new place and in my new jobs, I’ve been really lucky to meet interesting and supportive people.

The initial rush of starting over was quickly tempered by the daunting reality I’m facing. I’ve moved to a city I know slightly, and I’ve been lucky enough to move in with a friend of a friend, so things are a little familiar rather than completely strange and new. I also know several people in the city already, although I’ve never simply ‘hung out’ with them because my life was somewhere else. So I have a little head start in making a life here. But once the boxes are unpacked and the madness of moving fades, you realise you actually have to build a life in this place, for yourself, by yourself. You have to make things happen, otherwise all you’re going to do is shuffle between home and work. You have to go out there and make a world for yourself.

That’s a huge task to face alone. Even with friends around you, you still have to do it alone. I literally don’t really know how to start and have kind of had to get comfortable with the idea that I just need to put myself in certain places and then let life go from there. Joining classes and a sports club have been my initial forays, and actually talking to people when I’m there rather than just shuffling in and out. It’s been a push, but each time I’ve felt better.

My housemate has been amazing; we’ve been out a couple of times and she’s invited me out to various parties to meet her friends. It’s intense meeting so many new people in such a short time – it can simultaneously feel like you’ve come so far that you’re creating a whole new life and that you’ve isolated yourself so much that you’re surrounded by strangers.

I’ve also been trying to figure out how to develop the friendships I have already in this city, turning occasional socialising into hanging out. It’s really hard, because on the one hand, you’re potentially asking a lot of people – just because you want to spend more time with people, it doesn’t mean they want to spend more time with you! And I’m also conscious I’m currently learning to be alone after eleven years of always having someone there by my side – and that can mean I am asking too much of people, as I look for ways to not be alone at moments when in fact I should be.

It’s an intense learning process; how to build a life, where the boundaries are between you and others, how to live life alone rather than always thinking for two. And it’s peppered with moments of very cruel lucidity, where you see your current life with your old eyes. For instance, thinking about the fact I’ve crammed the remnants of what was a loving household into a tiny room in a shared home leaves me feeling winded with shock. But the key thing is that it’s shock at the scale of the change, rather than regret. I wasn’t happy in my old life. It wasn’t working. It fell apart. As huge as starting over is, it is better than the alternative.

Being well and well-being – aka grief and flu

I’ve been ill for the past few days, horribly glandy-achey-headachey stuff, which has been rumbling on for a while but actually only properly wiped me out two days ago. And really, I’m not fit to be writing this now, but I have to in order to stay vaguely sane – because it turns out that being physically unwell quite rapidly equates to taking a mental swan dive when it comes to grieving.

The week before last was probably the first time in a long time when I started to have flashes of feeling ‘normal’, seeing a bit of colour in the world again, actually fully enjoying the odd moment and starting to get a sense of my own strength returning. Then something resembling a cold started to make itself felt last week. At the same time, I found myself repeating cycles of thought and dwelling on ideas that just a few days before had been slipping into the past.

It didn’t immediately strike me that the two states were a consequence of one another. But then the moment I started to feel too physically unwell to do the things that are the makings of my new life, the ghosts of my old life and the grief I’ve been grappling with suddenly seemed overwhelming once again.

It’s partly because you can’t get on with the things that have been filling your days and helping you move on. Partly it’s because you’re tired and bored. Partly, it’s because there’s an intense loneliness to being ill which is made worse by remembering just how recently there was someone there to take care of you when you’re unable to take care of yourself. But underpinning all this is the sense that being physically vulnerable means you’re more vulnerable to your emotions.

Recognising that I’m feeling emotionally shit because I’m feeling physically shit does help. It takes some of the disappointment out of finding yourself back in a hole that you thought you’d clambered out of. And it does help you take it a bit easier on yourself, realising you’re not really back in the hole; you’re just ill and when you’re back on your feet, you’ll probably be able to see the same horizons you could before.

But still, grief adds a whole other level pain to being ill. The loneliness of being stuck in bed all day multiples infinitely when it serves to remind you that there is no one coming home at the end of the day to make things a little better. Your sense of life being out of control grows exponentially when you’re not in a fit state to do anything productive or proactive. And you’ve got time on your hands in which you can do little but feel rough and think badly-formed thoughts.

Tears and flu are not a good combination. I’m pretty sure that one makes the other worse. So along with the various medicines I’m taking for my body, I’m writing this as medicine for my mind. I’m fuzzy headed, feverish and aching all over – i.e. in no fit state to write – but getting some of the thoughts out of my head and onto the page feels like it’s just as important as sleep, medicine and lemon tea.

Shoreline

(for my father)

 

We saw the first wave coming,

standing together on the shore of my changing life,

and knew you would have to leave me soon.

 

As the wave’s shadow lengthened,

You said ‘I wish I could save you from all this’

before we even knew what all this would be.

 

Well, I’m in it now and the waves keep coming.

 

But as you keep watch from the distance of your life,

know that in the brief moments between surges,

your words are anchors in a tsunamic world,

 

Saving me from all that lies beyond the stability of land

even as my fragile world is swept away.

I will meet you again, but on an altered shore.

I don’t want to

The truth had been haunting your tongue

for so long, it silenced you.

Your shifting perspective cotton-woolled your mouth,

padding you out into muteness.

 

All our talk of the future

were my words, echoing off a room

you’d already left.

 

Your lyrics to our love

were all written

in the past tense.

 

You stood and listened

until I couldn’t breathe for trying,

so could you leave

with the fewest words possible.

 

I wish I’d noticed the slips.