Friday, July 20, 2012

"But you and I are buoyant", part I: Loss, Grief, Prince, and Little Lungs

This wasn't easy to write, and I'm pretty sure I was only able to do it because of Kathleen and all of her hard work on The Worst and Rachel and how she understands this "all too well". Kate Wadkins' acknowledgement of all the nerdy things I've said and written about Little Lungs already helped, too.

When I last updated this blog two months ago (?!) I posted a "Spring Cleaning/Spring Breakdown" mix, and said that I was going to be cleaning over Memorial Day Weekend -- which is what I've been focused on for the past 8 weeks. (Though I have been doing some other stuff -- more to come on that at a later date.) And in that post I explained that I haven't just been cleaning, but that I've been "sorting through and discarding the possessions of my deceased loved ones." If I have any 'long-time readers' (which seems rather unlikely at this point), they might remember a post, from two years ago by now, about a death in my family. The cleaning and sorting that I am doing right now are directly related to that death.

This is where the preamble comes to an abrupt end: in July of 2010, my stepfather died. He'd been the most reliably supportive person in my life for many years at that point, and he was also the last of my close, or 'nuclear' family. So his death changed me, and it changed my life as I knew it. He left me our house, where I'd more or less grown up, and I moved back here, permanently, instead of going back upstate to where my graduate program is based. Adjusting to and dealing with all of this has dominated my life since then. All of my projects and pursuits have become sort of secondary, because, well, I've been focused on survival.

Why did it take me two years to write that here? And why would I bother to do so now? At first there didn't seem to be a reason to write about his death here. It didn't seem relevant, as it didn't have anything to do with gender or diy community politics. I also didn't particularly want to write about it -- the loss was (and at times still is) so huge and so painful that I couldn't articulate how horrible it felt, and what he meant to me, and I didn't want to try. So I tried to keep writing here, and also tried to keep going to school, and tried really hard to just feel and be normal.

But as I went through the grieving process, it only got harder to act 'normal'. After a certain point I couldn't really read, and I couldn't write, and I didn't want to listen to music and I didn't want to go to shows, I didn't want to leave my house at all. I didn't want to be around people. I felt frustrated, and isolated, and frankly disappointed in a lot of the people around me, including the self-proclaimed 'progressive' artists, punks, and activists around me, because they just didn't get it. I felt old and exhausted and just really annoyed by punk subculture's seeming aversion to addressing real life, life-changing grown-up shit like death and grief and funeral homes and attorneys and estate taxes.

So I decided to try to write about it, about all of it. It was a struggle at first because I still wasn't quite ready to tell the entirety of the internets that my life had fallen apart, or that I felt like I'd actually lost my mind as a result. I started slowly, by writing about anxiety, depression, and feeling incapable of writing, even though it felt weird and meta and self-referential. I slowly started to go to shows and collect demos and write about my friends' bands again.

That was a little over a year ago. It took me that long to get to this point, to this post, to being able to type here 'my stepfather died' with the intention of actually publishing it. But at this point I'm just glad to be here at all. If there's anything I've learned from the grieving process, it's that it takes as long as it takes.


I spent the summer that my stepdad died in a weird, not quite intentional denial, in a bizarre suspended state. I remember it being unbearably humid that July, and describing the weather to someone as 'apocalyptic'. I did my best to accept things, and went on with what passed for my life -- lazing around the house during the day, going to shows and the occasional party at night -- because there wasn't much else I could do.

I didn't eat or sleep much, and I didn't really tell any of my local friends about it because I didn't really have any at that point (they were all more like acquaintances back then). I expected to wake up from this long, miserable dream at any moment, or to hear my stepdad's car in the driveway, or his key in the front door. I knew that I wouldn't, but I didn't choose to not let it sink in. It was a reflex.

It started to feel real in September. It started to feel real when all of my friends went back to school, and back to their year-round, non-summer schedules, and I didn't, because I couldn't go back upstate. It became really real on my birthday, when there was no parent, or anyone with any vested interest in my survival from one year to the next, to celebrate it. That was probably the first time I felt like my stepfather was really gone. I cried all day that day, and then I got dressed and went to a Little Lungs show near the city bus yards in Brooklyn. Guitarist Angie wished me a happy birthday when I got there, out in the hallway, and it ended up being the first time I really spent time with my friend Cary. I don't completely remember, but I think that was the last time I saw the band before they quietly stopped playing shows.


A couple weeks later, in early October, I came to the conclusion that the only way to move forward -- i.e., go back to and finish school, and start working again -- was to go through. I decided to start sorting through my stepdad's things and finally clean out the house. My stepfather was a hoarder, and seemingly incapable of parting with 'important' papers; there were piles upon piles of old phone and utility bills, receipts, bank and credit card statements, and magazines like Consumer Reports and Popular Science on every spare inch of flat space, including the floors and the staircases.

I started to sort through it all slowly, occasionally finding really important stuff in the mess. When I found the deed to the house in a stack of magazines, I started to lose it. My stepdad's hoarding was a fairly serious problem, and now it was one that he would never face or overcome. For the first time I saw him and understood him not as my caretaker but as a human being, with flaws and shortcomings and emotional baggage. It was sort of a Purple Rain moment, for anyone who's seen that movie.


Spoiler alert: Prince's character discovers a large trunk containing reams of sheet music, for songs written by his abusive father, and starts sobbing. It is brutal, my friends. You've been warned.

Rather than stepping back or taking a break, I flew at the mess, desperate to deal with it and get it out of the house. I spent the next three days crying, hyperventilating, sweating, and not really eating or talking to anyone. I didn't really clean or sort anything, I kind of just frantically moved the mess around and paced anxiously for twelve hours each day. When a family friend came over to check on me and asked me how the cleaning was going, I told her, "I feel like I'm drowning." When she laughed and tried to crack a joke about how I 'should' feel that way, I told her that it wasn't funny and I threw her out.

That was the first time I'd spoken in a few days at least. For whatever random reason, using the word 'drowning' made me think of that part toward the end of the Little Lungs song "The Big Six" where original bassist Jacki sings, "her room was an ocean, she was drowning in it".

I'd admired those lyrics since I'd first heard them, sometime back in 2008, but I'd never really thought about them. "The Big Six" is the last song on the band's first 7", Hoist Me Up!, which I've listened to many times, enough times to hypothesize that the "ocean", which is referred to in another song on that album ("Loft Coffin", "at night her room's an ocean, it's up to my knees"), is a metaphor for an addiction, and that 'her' is the narrator's mother. But I'd never really considered what that kind of ocean is like, or what drowning in that sense would look or feel like.

Her room was an ocean, she was drowning in it, I thought to myself, looking around my cluttered living room. Effectively distracted, I turned on my computer so I could listen to the song, and played it for the first time in ages.

The studio version of "The Big Six" by Little Lungs. (Fun fact: this song is the final track on the Spring Cleaning/Spring Breakdown mix that I posted back in May. Hashtag: #notacoincidence)

The song is only 2 minutes and 42 seconds long, but that night it felt bigger than that. The distorted dry strokes that open the song sounded more ragged and much stranger than ever, as if I'd never heard how dissonant and uncomfortable they are, and both the vocals on the first part of the song, and the lyrics sung -- "When is enough enough? When are you gonna quit it? When will you give it up?" -- sounded more strained than I remembered.

The song's second part, the transition to it and the change in tempo and feel, the lyrics, the deceptively simple guitar part -- all of that was soothingly familiar, even with my huge feelings and messy living room amplifying its intensity, and listened for the lyrics I'd been thinking about. I listened closely, with my eyes shut, and focused on the vocals, and the lyrics that I'd known for what felt like ever at that point. The verse about watching as 'he' was pulling out of the driveway, and then the verse I'd been waiting for, about 'her' nightstand, full of prescriptions, in her room, that one that was like an ocean.

Real talk? The song is almost unbearably sad, no matter what emotional condition you happen to be in when you listen to it. But it doesn't end that way, or with "she was drowning in it." I was really upset that night and on the verge of a real meltdown, but I kept listening until I got to the end, to the last verse, "he let it continue, feeding the big wound, the bile it needed to eat its way through you", and the final lyrics: "But you and I are buoyant, we ride the flood right out of here…."

I listened as the song went quickly and smoothly into its final part, that tight, straightforward march, that strange coda that I'd never understood, but always taken for granted as the right way to end that particular song. And for the first time, I got it. The end of "The Big Six" isn't just its outro; it tells the rest of the story. After the flood, presumably the rushing of that ocean out of the bedroom and the house, the narrator somehow manages to get up and get on with her life. Wherever the flood leaves her, she stands up, puts one foot in front of the other, and manages to walk away from the disaster.

I listened to the song a few times that night. And when I was done, after maybe the fourth listen, my cleaning bender was officially over. I kind of wished that the mess would disappear, wished the entire situation would disappear, but I no longer felt the compulsive need to deal with it right then. I accepted that the mess was my life at the moment, and that I was legally responsible for it. But I also knew that it wasn't really my mess. My stepfather had been a hoarder, and he was gone. But I was neither of those things. And I would eventually be okay.

I'm not gonna say anything trite like 'that song saved my life', because I seriously resent it when people make that sort of claim -- music is powerful, and it's great, but it isn't all powerful, and life is much more complicated than that. "The Big Six" didn't save my life, but listening to it absolutely helped me to feel better. That night, the words "but you and I are buoyant" were exactly what I needed to hear. And it sucks that there wasn't an actual person or friend there to say it to me, but I'm glad Little Lungs were there to do it.


An entire calendar year passed before I was able to even really think about cleaning, and then it took a few months after that before I actually started to do it, in early 2012. Around the time that I started to really prioritize making the house more livable, Little Lungs announced two reunion/farewell shows, in Brooklyn and New Brunswick. I didn't even think twice about it: as soon as I read about it, I knew that I would be there, to hear and see "The Big Six" live.