love is bigger than anything in its way
In 2005, I was living behind a curtain in a friend’s living room. Recently having had to declare bankruptcy after a hospital stay for a kidney infection, I still managed to see 28 U2 shows. I don’t know how I traveled so much; I had no credit. I didn’t quite have a full time job. I had a band, the one thing I really cared about, but despite our hard work, we weren’t gaining as much headway as I hoped. I also had a permanent lump in my throat and my hair was falling out from the anxiety of having no privacy and the constant roar of the highway below our apartment. I was with close friends, but I didn’t feel much better than I had in the abusive household I’d left. In some ways I felt worse. I asked my parents if I could move back in with them. They told me no.
That same year, I also saw several gigs by Glen Hansard's group, The Frames, my other favourite band. In some city not my own, their road manager asked me, “Why do you do this?”
“It’s medicine,” I said.
“Don’t take medicine unless you’re sick,” he cracked, a twinkle in his eye.
“How do you know I'm not sick?”
Singer/songwriter Mark Geary was opening for them, and every night, he wrote LET GO on the back of his hand in black sharpie. I’d been obsessed with the phrase, with the notion, and had been writing (bad) poetry about it since I was 11. There was so much locked in me. I never felt safe or relaxed. Even during the gigs, where I was freest and most myself, I might dig my nails or other sharp objects into my wrists in an attempt to alleviate the pressure. I adopted the practice of scrawling LET GO on my own hand before their shows and U2’s, as a reminder. I kept the habit up for years, sometimes hiding the words on the inside of my left wrist, the harbour for most of my scars. You don’t have to bleed to release it, whatever it is. Tension, grief, despair. Fear.
The first time I’d hurt myself, age 11, was after my father pinned me against a wall and dug his nails into that wrist, drawing blood. I thought by digging my own into the wound to accentuate the damage, someone might notice and offer help. No one did. Instead I found a strange relief, even a thrill, in the pain. I adopted safety pins, then knives, razors, and scissors, cutting my hands, arms, and legs, all through my teens and 20s. I thought for years about getting a LET GO tattoo in that spot on my wrist. Then Mark Geary got one on his arm, and another friend got one on the inside of her left wrist. Not wanting to be unoriginal, I abandoned the idea until I was standing outside an arena in Denver before a U2 show in 2015. The woman waiting next to me to meet the band had Bono draw on her back, heading afterwards to a tattoo parlour. Maybe it’s cliché to tattoo a rock star’s writing on you. Maybe I don’t care. I started having dreams about it, about having him write LET GO on my inner left wrist. Discreet. Just for me.
Two years later, when the opportunity arose, he ignored my request. He took his time instead making a bracelet of words in a circle around my entire wrist - carefully avoiding a scar in his path - explaining that it was the name of a new song that would be on their next album: Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way. I stared at him incredulously. I’m not sure I said thank you. Later, while pondering what the fuck had happened, I realised the title was the perfect response to LET GO. Maybe focusing on letting go isn’t the key. Maybe it’s focusing on the love that’s hiding on the other side of whatever you’re trying to get past, or through, or rid of.
The only problem was, I couldn’t believe it. Every day I glanced at my wrist and my chest ached. What love? Can I believe in love? It wasn’t reliable, not even from family, who you’d think would love you unconditionally. I’d never experienced requited romantic love, and as each year of my 30s passed I was becoming increasingly prepared that I might never. I knew my friends loved me, but that didn’t seem tangible somehow. I woke each morning wanting to die. I inched through LA traffic on my new 80-mile-per-day commute, reverting to the long-gone habit of ripping holes in my skin. I’d been here before, in and out over the years, but this was a new low. Perhaps it was partially the relentless stomach issues and newly diagnosed anemia making me physically miserable. Perhaps it was the recent election. Perhaps pouring energy into my band (and its frustrating cast of rotating singers) just seemed completely pointless after 20 years with little payoff. (I'd since taken over the singer role, but struggled constantly with my discomfort in the spotlight, choosing to record rather than gig.) Perhaps it was that on top of my squashed plans and dreams, I was still working a dead end job. Perhaps it was all of this and more. It felt like everyone and everything was on the other side of an impermeable veil. I spent countless hours contemplating my own demise and the best way to make it happen. Many of those hours I was on holiday with my best friends in my favourite city to see U2, far away from my stupid job or any other obvious nuisance. While I was there, I received word one of my poems was to be published, and my band released a single from the first EP to feature my vocals. For the first time in our history, I was proud of the song and the recording. None of this was enough to convince me that anything was or could be alright. In fact, hope - or any sort of sustainable future - felt even more remote.
The next year I went to see The Frames play in a tent in an Irish apple orchard in a tiny town called Ballintubbert. I barely made it onto the plane; the digestive troubles that had been plaguing me for 10 years were worse than ever. Something happened in that orchard. I still don’t know what it was. The music? The love I received - and was uncharacteristically able to accept - from friends? Magic forest fairies? For the first time in almost two years, suddenly it might be okay to live. I checked in with myself continuously for the next few months. Am I really okay? Are things okay? They seem okay?
Then the retina in my left eye randomly detached. After the emergency surgery - during which they lasered the retinal tear and inserted a gas bubble to push the retina back into place - I found myself face down for two weeks, day and night, and stuck at home for three months while the gas bubble slowly shrank and dissolved, and my eye attempted to function. The day I’d gone in for surgery, I received Glen Hansard’s latest album, This Wild Willing. Knowing I’d risk forever associating the songs with the ordeal, I reached for the comfort I knew it’d bring. I was a wreck of anxiety. My whole body was in distress. The possibility I could lose the sight in my eye was too great, and each day new bizarre symptoms would assure my fragile sensibilities that blindness was imminent. It had been raining for weeks, it would be raining for weeks, and my house near the mountains was sheathed in fog, the sky’s weak pallor creeping low in all directions. I was situated face down in a rented massage chair kit, alone in the grey day, my notebook propped up on a series of crates and buckets within reach beneath the chair. I pressed play.
In just the way The Frames’ music arrested me since I first heard it in 2003, this album wove its tendrils around me, forming a safe cocoon. At the end of "Fool’s Game," a spellbinding observation of the heart, a blast of instruments erupted out of near silence. In that moment it was the most perfect sound I had ever heard. Full of angst, of yearning, but also of complete acceptance and abandon, a release of everything you’ve ever held too tightly. This musician, under whatever moniker he chooses, has always offered this precise medicine. The voice of Aida Shahghasemi floated in, and I did not need the translation to feel what she was singing: “How could I know that this longing would drive me so crazy; That it would make my heart a prison, and my eyes a river?” I was aghast at the beauty. I was swept up in it. My eyes were awash with tears, one of them covered with a patch, the gas bubble and dilation drops allowing only light to be detected. Through the blur I wrote: We have reached high heaven. This song. This is the stuff of healing. That I can feel love and hope in this state… oh. I suddenly get it. I suddenly fucking get it. Love is bigger than anything in its way.
The question I’d been asking myself about why I’d have a rare and serious eye issue after so many other physical problems, odd as it may sound, was: What am I missing? Why my eyes, was I taking them for granted? I felt like even through my worst bouts of depression I could acknowledge beauty, especially in nature. I may have felt hopeless, but there were always sights (and sounds) I could appreciate. What was this trying to tell me? What did I need to learn? Was it not actually to do with sight, but rather to offer a reprieve from commuting? There’d been a constant loop in my head: “I can’t keep doing this.” Was this the only way to keep me from driving to my hated job: make it impossible for me to go - much less drive - anywhere? There was a foreign freedom in not having any responsibilities (save struggling with one eye through a few hours of work per day from the comfort of my room). I allowed myself to enjoy it.
It was a consolation to watch the weather change the colour and visibility of the mountains, and as winter became spring, to watch the Painted Lady butterfly migration from my bedroom window. It was a revelation to not be moving or wanting for anything. To be forced to be still. But why this way? As the bubble shrank, the world appeared warped and distorted through my left eye, straight lines curved, colours too vivid. With the subject of visible beauty on my mind, I wrote a poem called “If My Sight Goes, I Know.” I wrote a song, while watching the butterflies, about finding a home in another person that’s at least half about someone I haven’t met yet.
One day I got a phone call from a friend who's not often in touch. “What are you not seeing?” came the voice down the line. “That’s what I keep asking myself!” When we hung up, I felt a rush of overwhelming gratitude and awe. Why do I believe I don’t mean anything to anyone? A dismissive attitude, after both of my roommates fed me daily, kept me company, and drove me to doctor appointments. Maybe because my own mother never called me after surgery, only finally emailed days later to check in. But here was this person, far removed from my life, in the middle of a whirlwind job on the other side of the country, sitting with me for an hour, challenging me to answer hard questions, to take the time I’d been given and meet it wisely with the discipline I'd intended. Why can’t I see myself the way others can? I wondered. Why is my view of myself so distorted? I froze with the wording of my own questions. Oh. Oh.
I started small, with an hour of uninterrupted writing per day. I've kept journals since I was 8, but sometimes thoughts pile and entangle, refusing to funnel to paper. The dam was now open, and weight began to fall away. I tackled unopened boxes that had been sitting dormant for a year since moving to the mountains. I took the plunge, and after a few tries, found a new therapist. My last, trusted one had to retire unexpectedly at a particularly bad time. (Surprise, trauma survivors have trust issues.) When I was able to start driving and returned to work, I joined a gym, something I’d been saying I should do for years, rather than running and biking during warm months and wasting away the rest of the time. I made doctor appointments for my throat, my stomach, for other concerns. I met more often with friends. I updated my resume (though I haven’t yet looked for a new job). I bought a flight to New Zealand, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. I found an acupuncturist. I started another online poetry course.
I booked gigs for my band, started new band projects, and lit a fire under languishing ones. The drive to perform had been awoken. Playing music was the only aim I'd ever had in life, and it had gotten lost under the belief that I was a failure. Whether intentionally or not, and despite it petrifying me, I'd been working steadily toward the ability to gig solo. My bassist now had a baby, my drummer engaged to be married. I needed to be able to stand on my own two feet. With the slow assurance that this might not be entirely impossible, I started feeling less tortured. Funny, that. What wasn’t I seeing? ME. MYSELF. ME. I'd put so much stock in what others thought of me, yet never actually took any of it to heart. What hadn’t I been letting go of that I could attempt to let go of? Old wounds, old ways of thinking. What was between me and caring for myself? A whole bunch of shit that will always be a challenge. But glimpsing with such clarity, even for a moment, how love can be bigger than all of it, is something I get to carry into the next storm.