Return of the Frog Queen

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Madison, WI

I was living in this house when I was 21 years old. My roommate from college took this photo a few days ago when he was visiting Madison, Wisconsin and posted it on Facebook. I was slapped in the face with so many memories: lying in the dark back room in the summer, the only room with air conditioning, listening to music; drinking Mickeys and playing Tetris wars; breaking plates and smashing the Atari in a collective rock ‘n’ roll meltdown; smoking cigarettes all night on that tip-top balcony outside my bedroom, having conversations I thought I’d never forget. I lived there with 5 or 6 men — boys, really, we were just kids — I think I scored the best room because I was the only girl. That school year (1994 to 1995) and the few years afterwards were the most emotional of my life. I can’t really think of a better word to describe them. It was the loneliest and saddest time of my life before this chronic illness, but also the most memorable, the most adventurous, the most creative years I’ve experienced. And all of it is inextricably entangled with music. I’d once made a sign for my Mother’s kitchen wall that said (it was multi-colored like this): NEVER BE WITHOUT MUSIC and I never was. I have an obscenely bad memory, but everything I remember from those years has a soundtrack. I think maybe the only reason I remember any of it is because there was music playing during each scene, searing them into my mind. 1995 was also the only time I experienced depression before becoming housebound and I truly, un-dramatically, credit certain bands with saving my life.

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CD bliss, 1996

I’ve tried to listen to music a few times over the last four years, but it’s been difficult. First, because I was just too sick and was always striving for the closest thing I could get to silence. Background sounds are still difficult on a too-much-stimuli level, but as my headaches got better, I started to dabble in a song here and there and discovered that, even if I could handle the noise, the emotions unleashed were too much, like a tsunami against which I’d have to quickly close the floodgates for fear of drowning. Memories of sad times making me sad for who I was, memories of good times making me sad for what I’ve lost, regrets about past situations, gratitude for past experiences and abilities — all of it makes my chest start to heave and my breath catches in my throat and I go, “Oh, no way, not going there” and quickly switch to watching happy elephant videos. What I’d give to luxuriate in my old albums, in the memories they bring up and in hours of sobbing! And it would be a luxury — it would be cathartic and fun on some level to reminisce, but the indulgence would be far outweighed by the payback. My life is about equilibrium now; I try not to rock the boat. Plus, it’s really not as fun to go down Emotional Music Memory Lane without a bottle of whiskey.

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Kristin Hersh

Having said that, 15 months ago, my brother in Connecticut told me that one of my favourite singers, Kristin Hersh, was going to be in Seattle. I thought it was kind of funny (and kind of sad) that my brother on the other side of the country had to tell me what was happening down the road, but I never look at local listings because it’s a bit torturous to see what I’m missing. I decided to go. It was a solo show in a small, mellow venue where you could sit down and eat while watching. Seemed like the perfect way to test the live music waters. And it went well. It was utterly surreal to be in a public place, especially at night. I felt like one of those animals allowed to walk outside on grass after spending their lives in metal cages. I was unsteady, gripping my husband’s arm, looking uncertainly at the steps, the ceiling and lights, eyes darting around at the crowd uncomfortably, hoping not to be seen in case one of them noticed the outsider and stood up, pointed at me and screeched like that scene in the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was a wonderful night, the hardest part was gulping down the sneaker-wave of tears when she opened with probably my favourite of her solo songs. Again, that unreliable floodgate. It was the music, yes, but so much more. I was out at a show — out at anything, actually — for the first time in two and a half years. I was normal. Or, at least, doing a good job of feigning it.

Tonight, I’m trying again. Jeremy Enigk is playing a show in Seattle and my sister has connections, so she’s going to set me up in the VIP or ADA section. I’m so excited. I had seen Kristin Hersh live probably half a dozen times before, so last year’s venture was noteworthy, but not a bucket list item. But tonight… Enigk’s band Sunny Day Real Estate’s first album Diary was part of the constant soundtrack in that Madison house 22 years ago, so it’s fitting that that photo showed up on Facebook a day before I found out about this show. I took it as a sign. I doubt I would love that album as much if I were introduced to it now, but back then there wasn’t much like it and these guys were college students around my age. And … THAT VOICE. It ripped my angsty heart out.

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my own private Idaho, 1995

I wound up fleeing the midwest in 1995. I drove alone across the country to Seattle (actually, to Bainbridge Island) during what would turn out to be one of the best four days of my life. No company, no mobile phones or internet back then, just me, a camera and my music. A year later, still lost in so many ways, I found Enigk’s solo album, Return of the Frog Queen, and, again, the timing was right and it became one of those keep-me-alive CDs.

So… tonight. I’m going to my second live show in almost four years and this time I have months of improvements under my belt. I haven’t slept well and I have a pretty bad headache (which is rare these days), but I’m not going to stay home to “be safe.” I may not know anything that he plays — I may not even like anything that he plays, that album is twenty years old, after all — but I’ve never seen him live, don’t even really know what he looks like and, if his voice can still do that heart-tug, stomach-clench wail, I might even let myself swim in the emotions for a change.
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LIVE UPDATE: He’s playing some songs I know, I really like the stuff I don’t know and his voice can still hit the sweet spot. I’m floating (not drowning).

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Jeremy Enigk

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Hounds of Love

[Written September 30th]
When I got sick, I started having horrific nightmares about my dogs. At least once a week every week for the last 3 or 4 years, I have dreamt that they’re in danger and I’m too weak or too sick to help them. Last night I had no voice. For an eternity, with little energy and full of sickness and while wrangling my smaller dog, I filled my lungs and tried with all my might to scream for Bowie, who was gone and in definite peril. Nothing would come out but a croak. I begged the other people in my dream to help, to shout, run, drive–do all the things that I couldn’t do–but nobody would pay attention. That’s always a theme in these nightmares: imminent death, crippling disability and nobody is listening, nobody is helping.

I woke up breathless and moaning, as I often do. This love is so fierce, sometimes I think I would take a bullet for my dogs. I cannot fathom having an actual human child. My heart would explode. Parents out there: to me, you are incomprehensibly brave, strong and selfless. And SICK parents–chronically ill and disabled parents–those of you that may have nightmares about not being able to protect/save/find/help/comfort your children–you live (and dream) through something I can only get a small glimpse of with my dogs. Hats off to you all, courageous warriors. And I hope everyone stays safe.

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April Memorial

Here’s what I want to memorialize today: My head is heavy and cloudy, but I don’t have a headache. My neck is stiff, but not sore. My muscles are weak, but they don’t hurt. My throat – this throat that has felt as if I have strep every day for a year, maybe two – is not sore and has not bothered me in a while. My mood is miraculously light. I may grimace, I may be grumpy and curse this wretched illness, but I haven’t felt sad or despairing in a long time. My period this month came as a quiet, rolly-polly visitor. It shifted and moved around some, as if trying to get comfortable, but didn’t bother me too much.

I worked on the computer today for a few hours, gathering info on doctors, clinics and tests, readying myself for the eventual disability application. I then stood in the kitchen for a while, washing and chopping vegetables and preparing some food. I was dizzy and slurry and weak, but, after lying down to meditate for a while, I was able to go the cemetery on my mobility scooter with the dogs and hubby.

Don’t get me wrong, my vision is still blurry, tinnitus is deafening, hair is falling out, voice is weak, energy is preternaturally low, and nighttimes are torturous battles with my ever-present sleep spectre… But. I’m getting stronger.

I waited a week to post this to see if I jinxed myself and the chronic illness gods would strike me down… I have taken a downturn in the last few days, but I still feel like a different person than I was over Christmas, so I’m posting it. Publicly proclaiming to all and sundry: there might, after all, be life after lifelessness. Universe, please don’t let this slip away.

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