“When panic grips your body and your heart’s a hummingbird, raven thoughts blacken your mind till you’re breathing in reverse. And all your friends and sedatives mean well but make it worse…“
—from “If the Brakeman Turns My Way,” Bright Eyes
I was writing a post yesterday about art and how it connects people. At one point in my discussion, I noted that I had had a particularly pivotal experience myself with a song, and that this song had made more than just a small impression on me. It actually jolted me (literally) to a different place of perception – one which made a marked difference to my life.
That sounds really extreme and exaggerated. It wasn’t. Sometimes you really can mark a moment – an event, an experience. It can be just a few minutes long – the length of a song. But it shifts you. And after that, nothing is the same again.
I was in the middle of a marital implosion when I first heard Bright Eyes’ “Brakeman” song.
I didn’t want to face divorce – not least because I had two very little kids (aged 4 and 2 at that time.) It’s hard enough to contemplate the ending of a serious relationship – but when it’s not just about you? When your actions are going to have enormous lifelong consequences on two completely innocent little people? It turned an incredibly painful situation into something paralyzingly awful.
I didn’t want to take them away from their dad – who, whatever faults I may have been able to lay at his door as a marital partner, was (and is) a hands-on, loving father. But I couldn’t survive in the situation anymore. I couldn’t live with the fighting, the anger, the coldness – and I had finally accepted that it wasn’t fixable. The question was: what now??
It was a really hard time.
And I was pretty isolated. We had been trying to keep our issues to ourselves, he and I, so none of my immediate friends really knew just how bad things were for me. My closest friends and my family (the people I would have been most likely to confide in anyway) were far away. So as it was, as things began this final disintegration, I was dealing with it completely alone.
Music wasn’t something I was listening to much at this time. I would occasionally flip on the radio in the background while I was taking care of the kids; that was about it. But my brother (luckily for me, as it turned out) liked to occasionally expand my musical horizons and he had recently given me a disc he’d burned of somebody he thought I’d like. That’s how I first heard of Bright Eyes.
This “sampler disc” he made of them had ten or so songs on it. They were quiet songs…poetic. I liked the sound; it suited my mood. It didn’t really make any more of an impression on me than that.
It wasn’t the fault of the music in any way. It was just that things were so hard by this time. I had no room inside of myself to think about anything with any depth, to focus with any sort of clarity on anything. My own situation was too daunting to me. I was scared, I was having panic attacks. (Did I mention it was a BAD TIME?)
One morning, I let the kids settle into the bedroom with a DVD while I cleaned in the kitchen. I had flipped the radio on, but it was getting on my nerves. Everything was that morning…I was antsy and nervous. This was the norm anymore, but it was ratcheted up for some reason that morning; I don’t remember why now. (There might not have been any particular reason.)
Then I remembered that my brother had said he’d given us a little more Bright Eyes music than what he’d put on the disc. It turns out he’d given us the entire Cassadaga album. So I started playing it, for the novelty.
And then I promptly stopped listening and started thinking about something else.
But a few minutes later, a lyric somehow penetrated my brain. It was the one I quoted at the beginning of this: (“When panic grips your body...”)
I just…stopped. I mean, literally. My brain froze in its now-familiar anxiety-riddled tracks – and I stopped and I listened to that song.
I couldn’t help it – because those lines were describing exactly how I felt. Exactly. I couldn’t have written anything more descriptive of my current state. It was actually shocking to me.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this moment, when I felt that jolt of identification with those song lyrics – it changed everything. Everything. I knew things weren’t good with me – but I didn’t realize just how tired I was, how utterly burned out, how completely demoralized and alone I felt – not until those lyrics got right in my face, looked me right in the eye and said: “You’re not alone.”
I wasn’t alone. This was a realization that came on me so hard and fast it was breathtaking. There were people in the world who felt exactly how I was feeling: panicky, scared, isolated, confused, in need of answers, in need of peace. Clearly there were people like this: somebody actually wrote a song about it all.
It’s so easy to feel like you’re alone when you’re struggling – especially when you look around and realize there’s nobody to talk to, nobody to lean on.
But that only means that the people around you, in your actual physical space, aren’t there for you, aren’t understanding you – or maybe they’re the ones actually causing you pain. The reality is that pain and struggle and loneliness are a part of this whole human experience that we’re all muddling through. All of us. Everyone suffers. Everyone struggles. Everyone gets lonely. And it’s our shared experiences that connect us to other people – including, and even perhaps especially, our experiences of pain.
Solidarity works as an antidote to feelings of isolation. Making human and emotional connections, recognizing that other people truly can relate to what you’re feeling – there’s strength there. And art is a bridge to solidarity.
Music, writing, visual art – these are the things we create that capture our own perceptions. And when we share them, we offer connections.
That song actually, literally changed my life. That sounds so stupidly dramatic to say…but it’s true.
I started listening to a LOT of music after that and then segued from there into other kinds of writing (essays, blogs, novels) and eventually back into the visual arts. So that Bright Eyes song wasn’t only important to me for itself and for that pivotal moment. In hindsight, I can see that it was actually the doorway through which I reconnected with art – and that reconnection has been hugely, hugely significant to me since.
It’s funny: If you read any press about Conor Oberst, the Bright Eyes songwriter (which I have done because I’m always curious about the person behind the artistic things I like…what frames their perspective, etc), it quickly becomes clear that people seem to regard him in one of two ways: he’s GOD, or he’s this whiny crybaby who moans his way through songs about his pain. There seems to be limited middle ground about him; opinions skew heavily to the poles.
I find that I can understand the first perception better than the second. I’m four or five years older than he is, I think – so I didn’t grow up listening to his music in that teenage/impressionable state of mind like a lot of people did. But he’s such an incredibly gifted songwriter, and he does write about pain and loneliness and confusion in such a PRESENT way – I can see how, if I was younger and encountering his music/writing for the first time, I could easily sort of kiss his feet. (I certainly had my moments of feeling like that about other musicians at that time of my life – whose music was nowhere near as emotionally stirring as Bright Eyes’.)
The motivations of the other side are harder for me to wrap my mind around – but I think it comes down to art, and the respect (or lack of it) that people have for art.
Art connects. It’s that simple. Creating art is, I believe, an act of looking at life through your own unique filter, making connections, and then sharing those – and in so doing, making other connections. It’s about, as Amanda Palmer put it, connecting the dots as only you can.
You can like or not like somebody’s musical style…that’s taste. Or you might simply not be in the frame of mind to grasp or otherwise appreciate a particular work of art and what it’s trying to say…that happens. But I think that disparaging somebody for making art is the action of somebody who perhaps hasn’t had a need yet for the kind of connection that art can provide.
The connection I made with that Bright Eyes song that day had such a tremendous impact on my understanding of my own self. I honestly don’t know how, or if, I would have gotten to the healthy mental/emotional place I eventually have gotten to without it. It made that much of a difference…it really did.
Because somebody was brave enough and honest enough to write those lyrics and make that song and put it out there…it was there for me to find. And I found it and it helped me.
And I’m so grateful for that.
**I wrote this in response to the WordPress DPchallenge. Here’s the link to that!**