Grieving With Regina Spektor

The Light, it’s an incredibly simple song by Regina Spektor. The lyrics are not complex, they tell of someone falling asleep into familiar dreams and then waking up to the light of morning. They talk of sunlight, stars, memories and the wisdom of the morning. Yet I find this song incredibly sad and whilst I do not know quite how to interpret the lyrics they wake in me a grief for things lost. “So many things I know,” sings Spektor, “But they don’t help me. Each day I open up my eyes and start again.” And there is something in that – the notion of waking up to another day and starting again. For that is something the aggrieved must do, wake up and live on, despite their loss.

My last surviving grandparent, my gran, died a few years ago. I remember getting a call in which I was told that she was close to dying. So I got on a train, headed north and stood at the side of her nursing home bed whilst she slipped away into death. It was a surreal moment especially as the woman I stood next to looked nothing like the woman I’d known as a kid, who would chase me up stairs, put plasters on my cuts and generally be as silly as I was. I remember the train journey home after the funeral, I was looking out the window with tears streaming down my face trying not to freak out the passenger next to me. I just didn’t get it, I just didn’t get why I was crying so much. That was until someone close to me said this: “when someone you love dies, it’s just sad.”

And it’s as simple as that. When you love someone they are wound around your heart, embedded in the fabric of your being. You might see them lots or only occasionally or not have seen them for years but memories persist, especially the ones that are born of love. When that person passes away the part of you that is them suddenly aches. All those memories you shared, as taken for granted as they may be, suddenly reverberate with loss and the knowledge that no new memories can be forged is heart breaking. And it breaks my heart that it took my gran passing away for me to remember quite how important she was in my life. Still, I am grateful for all those memories and the fantastic woman that was my gran. I don’t know how to interpret The Light by Regina Spektor but it awakes a sense of grief in me and for that I am glad. And like Regina those who have lost must wake up every morning over and over again until, perhaps, normality is returned to. But not the normality of old but a new normal in which love and loss are now intertwined. It’s often a very sad world we live in and to pretend otherwise I think is to deceive ourselves. I consider this song an honouring of grief, as devastating a process as it is I think it an important one. I speak only for myself and do not wish to make glib comments about ‘moving on’ or to dictate to anyone how they should experience their grief. Yet maybe something in what I say rings true and you recognise some of your own experiences in mine and maybe the song evokes something for you too. As I often do I’ll give Regina Spektor the last word.

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The Unhappy Tomato

She was just your average tomato: red, rosy and often in good cheer. She loved living in the vegetable aisle. She had lots of friends – the carrots, who liked having a laugh; the outspoken aubergines, who always stood up for each other; the kind courgettes and even the cabbages. She didn’t get on well with the leeks, who were often the bullies of the aisle, but other than that she felt at home. It was a great supermarket as well because vegetables were the top priority and there weren’t that many fruits at all because the store manager didn’t like them. But that didn’t bother tomato and she was happy as she was, until the day she discovered something very important – that she was different – she wasn’t a vegetable after all, she was actually a fruit.

All along she’d been in the wrong aisle and now she was worried about telling her friends. Fruits were always the butt of the vegetables’ jokes and many veggies actively hated fruits, sometimes the potatoes would go round the fruit aisle and beat up a bunch of grapes. She told some of her closest friends and whilst one got all upset the others were supportive of her. But that still wasn’t enough so, one night, she snuck away and went to find the fruits. She didn’t regret it – she met strawberries, bananas, oranges and grapes, and had an absolutely great time as well as making a bunch of new friends. However, as time went by she realised that not all was well in the fruit aisle. Underneath the smiles and the peels she discovered that many of the fruits were damaged and bruised, it turned out being a fruit in a vegetable’s supermarket wasn’t so great after all. She even discovered that many fruits had given themselves up to become juice because they couldn’t take it any more. And so the happy tomato became decidedly unhappy.

Then a new store manager arrived who hated fruits even more than the last and it got quite dangerous for the tomato and her new friends. Nevertheless, they bandied together and prepared themselves for tough times ahead. But the thing that really broke the tomato’s heart was that when she went to visit the vegetable aisle, to see her old friends, they just weren’t that interested. They were so caught up living their veggie lives that they’d never really stopped to consider what it must be like to be a fruit. She tried hanging out with them but the carrots kept cracking jokes about bananas and the auberinges kept going on about how much they hated grapefruits. The friendly parsnip didn’t mind but didn’t really get it either, he even called her his BFF – Best-Fruit-Friend, which pissed her off no end.  And so it dawned on her that whilst she’d been on a long journey from the vegetable to the fruit aisle and made so many new friends, learnt so many new things and had a whole punnet of ace experiences, there were many that hadn’t been on the journey. Something had changed for the tomato and whilst she still had time for her veggie friends she no longer felt quite at home in a vegetable’s world.

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That Night I Met Loneliness

I’ve known loneliness for years now but there is one night in particular back in the summer of 2014 that sticks in my memory. My life seemed a bit discombobulated at the time – I wasn’t getting a lot of work, I’d recently moved and things weren’t really slotting into place. And it was one of those evenings – I was out at dinner but wasn’t really connecting with the people around me and didn’t feel very listened to. I said goodbye and cycled over to see some newish friends in a pub but it was too late, I was slipping away and those stories were coming home to roost. The stories of how I had no friends, that I was pointless and worthless, that what I was doing wasn’t really contributing to anything and that I wasn’t living the glamorous 20s lifestyle I was supposed to be. The stories were coming and the cracks were opening. So I left the pub, got on my bike and cycled away.

But for the first time in a long time I did something different. I sang. I just started singing nonsense rhymes as I cycled, not because I’m much of a singer but because I wanted to block out the stories. I wanted to stop them creeping in and making themselves at home. So many times before those stories had destabilised me and often tipped me into periods of depression. I sang to stop myself from thinking. I got back to the random little house I was lodging in and got ready for bed. And there, in the bathroom, I felt something well up inside of me. It wasn’t a story because it wasn’t coming from my head instead it was a feeling in my chest. It felt like an emptiness, it was bleak and desolate, growing between the cracks, and slowly it pushed its way up from my heart and that’s when I started to cry. I cried a lot and hugged myself too as I washed my tears down the sink with toothpaste and Listerine. The feeling bloomed and I knew what it was – loneliness.

I thought I’d share this experience because I think that was the first time I ever psychologically and physically held myself through loneliness. Rather than just let it overwhelm me and flood me with its stories I acknowledged the feeling underneath. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, not at all, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but it was a feeling rather than a fact. And to let myself feel it, rather than push it away or succumb to its stories, felt like an achievement of sorts, as lonely as it was. This was by no means the end of the story, things didn’t magically get better and I didn’t suddenly feel fine. I’d need much support from my friends and family (and for once I had the guts to ask for it) and I would need to start slowly, slowly changing the things in my life that were bringing me down. I started with those oft-repeated stories, the ones that thrive off the potent and powerful emptiness of the feeling of loneliness. I had to keep reminding myself that they weren’t true and that I wasn’t worthless. But I guess the real reason I’m sharing this experience is that I’ve heard many people tell me that they fear loneliness. And, yes, it is not something nice and for many it is devastating and can’t just be witnessed and ameliorated. However, for others including myself, it is a feeling and it does pass. And it’s also perfectly normal, a part of all of our lives, and that’s why I was very proud of myself that night I met my loneliness. And now for a suitably melancholic song from Regina Spektor’s new album (yup, I’m just trying to get her to retweet me, one day).

Bleeding Hearts With Regina Spektor

There’s a new Regina Spektor album on the way and I am excited about that. Her latest song Bleeding Heart has a curious melancholy to it. If you listen to each verse it tells the story of someone who, for so long, has been lonely and angry. They’ve been stuck at the back of the class, ignored at the dance, wishing for connection with others but getting rejection instead. So they get bitter, start drinking and wall themselves up in their “prison-like home”, brooding on their memories and hating on the world of judgemental, unfriendly people. “It’s you versus everyone else.” Regina sings on that someday they’ll grow up, forget the pain and move on. That is until they see “a sad pair of eyes…and up will come back all the hurt.” All they’ve repressed and suppressed will come flooding back and even though they want to help they’ll move on because their life has been tough enough, “cause you won the war so it’s not your turn but everything inside still burns.” And they douse that fire with more drink, thinking on the refrain: “never never mind bleeding heart, bleeding heart, never mind your bleeding heart.” But everything changes in the final verse.

How long must I wait till you learn that it’s not too late,
How long must I cry till you know that you really tried,
How long must I try till you learn that dreaming’s hard,
How long must I dream till you heal your bleeding heart,
Never mind your bleeding heart.
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And that’s just it, we should always mind our bleeding hearts. Because they’re right there, in our chests, all the time. To not get to know our hearts is like having a smart phone without any apps or only playing Goldeneye on the N64 (as good as that game is) – we’re severely underusing this fantastic piece of technology.  Just like a smart phone, the heart is fragile, prone to breaking and bleeding, and it can be very tough to experience this. What we tend to do though is try and ignore the times when we are hurt and upset. Much simpler to brush these issues aside, pretend we’re ‘fine’ and move on. It’s all that keeping calm and carrying on rubbish, the stiff upper lip bullshit and all the other ways we try to condition and cajole ourselves out of having feelings as we pretend that not being invited to the party didn’t upset us or all those other times we’ve been forgotten and ignored haven’t hurt us. But those things do hurt and their effects do add up and we can’t hide behind seeming indifference and bitterness for too long.
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Fortunately, as Spektor in her endless wisdom, already knows, it’s not too late to recognise we are human: fallible, fragile and oh so incomplete. It’s never too late to have another go at being human, to try getting in touch with our emotions and recognising our feelings. We can also acknowledge that we have really tried even if we don’t think we have. We can be kinder to our past selves because they were the ones that got us here and without them we wouldn’t be where we are today. Sure, we might not have always used the best tools or made the best decisions but we did try and that’s something we can keep on doing and maybe now we can do it with better tools and not make the same mistakes. And dreaming is hard, it’s dangerous to want things you might not get and to hope for the best in such seemingly hopeless times. Far easier to wall ourselves up in cynicism and prison-like homes. But isn’t that life of passivity, denial and fear much worse than one of wanting, striving and dreaming? And in amongst the making up for lost time, the trying and the dreaming well maybe, just maybe, our precious bleeding hearts will heal. So, yes, always mind your bleeding heart.