I could never really tell the difference between the music I’ve loved to make and the words I’ve loved to write. With the depiction of the literal lyrical content of such works of art, there is enough to ponder if there really is a difference between the two, other than the ways in which they are performed. A good song will hopefully affect you with a literary bent, the words expressing some kind of common hope or anxiety, the melody in perfect harmony with the arrangement; the story in perfect conjunction with the aesthetics of the prose, the paragraph breaks like verses in some attempted form of a particular truth. Indeed, it is more like storytelling when a pop song slides into a middle-eight and back out again to a chorus, and more like music when sentences slip forward, perfectly arranged by punctuation, each in their way garnering an appreciation for the greater work at hand. I have always wanted my music to say something interesting. And I have always tried to write in a way that can be remembered like a melody, hummed like a tune.
I should maybe start this off, however, with a simple statement of what it means to me to consider time, regardless of an artistic output. I am about to turn 34 years old, which means that this is the last year I’ll be closer to 30 than 40.
I don’t know what this means. It’s a blessing, really, that I am out of my 20s. Those were strange and convoluted times. Much more strange and convoluted than being 33 almost 34 and just now finishing my undergraduate degree with a mound of debt and no career in the works. But considering all the things that I have done and that have happened to me since I was “college age,” finally finishing ten years later is a near Herculean feat. Ten years is a hell of a long time. And my past decade has been laced with unfortunate realities. I wanted, back then, to fast forward until now, for the building blocks that had already been laid to prop up my soul and be a cornerstone for a life I knew I could never fully appreciate until I was older, wiser; my world somehow changed; a sanity evolved.
What has become clear in finally continuing my education – not in the getting of a degree, per se, but actually participating in something beyond myself – is that I am not on a path now that I might have been on a conventional timeline. In or out of college as a relative teenager, I was constantly tempted to throw in the towel when it came to thinking about a future. I had just watched my Dad die of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a completely and utterly brutal thing for anyone to witness, not least of whom a 17 year old boy prone to instability, anger and sadness. Life seemed so impermanent. That my family had his last week to huddle and say our goodbyes and I love yous means more to me now than it did at the time. I was in a hurry to get out of Dodge. And our familial bonding was a burden on someone who just wanted to be ten years older, putting together a life built around music, words, friendships and good times. I wasn’t ready for whatever the so-called real world had in store for me. I didn’t care.
Which brings us to the present, which is, for me, a different kind of up in the air. Thoughts of a presumptive MFA are daunting. I have spent the last two years watching my partner go through a program in photography, and I am fairly certain that I’m just not that kind of intelligent. I can write some complete thoughts. I can dance with words around a philosophical meaning. I can cradle language until it bursts forward onto the page or through the amplifier. I can sit down, totally straight, and give five pages of myself. I can spend ten hours in a row, crafting every aspect of a song and emerge completely awake with a finished product. I can do these things well, sometimes. And even as that seems ripe for further education, I just don’t know if I can do it. At least not right now.
Intrinsic to the whole of my life and where it’s going is the memory of my 20s. Beyond the work-a-day madness and the writing of the whatever, was a madness all its own, burgeoning since childhood but right up on me as my Dad died, as I went to school and dropped out, as years just sort of went by, until at 22 a full blown manic episode went to bare its teeth, and I landed in the hospital with a diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder. I would be in and out of hospitals over the years in three very serious instances.
As much as that remains tiresome to write down and look at, the experience of having such a disease is much more often fascinating than it is detrimental. That isn’t to say it’s a walk in the park, far from it, but all of the things that have happened to me since that night ten years ago when I entered the ER with racing in my heart and numbness in my arms are, to look back on, sort of amazing. A few months of not taking the diagnosis seriously, a move out to the Pacific Northwest and a further drip of a twisted mind had me living on the streets of Portland with nowhere to go and wanting no help. I give my Mom the most credit for those weeks: how she dealt with her only son denying anything was wrong when everything was wrong, with answering phone calls in the middle of the night from a number she didn’t recognize just to hear me babble about what I thought was happening to me, is beyond my comprehension. Others have played similar roles. But aside from how it has affected those close to me, I have some stories – stories that I’ve tried to tell at least in part in a plethora of written and recorded works – that you wouldn’t ever believe. And god dammit anyway, I survived. Sometimes I wonder how that’s possible.
Even so, the fact of my illness dictates that I will never work a 40 hour week, and certainly not for the next 35 or so years. That I was ever able to go to school full time is somewhat unbelievable considering the tenuous nature of my illness, though I could point to a few complete meltdowns to describe just how tricky it has been to toe the line between what is manageable and what is not. Certainly everyone has these moments. Moments thinking about giving up, thinking about quitting. All just moments in time slipping onward, it sometimes seems.
I am, most importantly, getting married this summer, in July, to a woman, Allie, who I am complete with, who has witnessed along with me seven or so years of growth in the right direction. It is no longer a question as to who I am going to spend a life with, even as what I will be doing for a job is mostly unknown. For the immediate future, it’s Allie looking for teaching jobs and grants; it’s me giving up the idea of writing my great American novel (I don’t have one in me or I’ve already published it) and focusing on what I’m better at: an adequate dialogue, a furthering of a madness on paper and tape, that formidable day job and a wait to see where we land. Massachusetts has been kind to us, but the driving force behind an eventual or inevitable move is a wait and see what happens for the next six or so months.
What is most important is the joining of our lives. It is more than I ever thought possible. But since I know that with this major life change comes all the rest of life’s changes, I have but a short list of things I actually want to do for money: a day job at a bookstore, I’ve done that before; getting really into the world of coffee, that sounds rewarding; giving myself over to the life of a sort of house husband, being with our children as they’re born into our world – that would be lovely…perhaps simply struggling financially, with two freelance artists fighting the good fight, living as each day comes. People do these things, right?
It should come as little surprise that it is my partner who gives me the strength to keep going. Allie was, is, and will forever be why I’m good with waking up in the morning, doing what I have to do, and sprinkling in some utter silliness to celebrate life the way I always wanted to. Within the depths of a general darkness, there is the matter of what makes the shadows. Whether it’s holding hands at a stop light, laughing at things quoted or absurd, dancing to an empty stage, there is a common thread of perseverance and faith in the unknown that has allowed my continued existence, what has shown me that life is so much more than what you do and what is done to you. A very serious mental illness can show you the beauty in everything or that nothing really matters. I can claim the truth for you here in writing that it’s both. I think that is very much the point of life at all. We tremble for the unknown. We know that we will live until we don’t, and everything in between is a bonus. I am sure that the fascination is enough. It allows me to always do things my own way. And often get away with it.
Regardless of the whole of my late teens and 20s – with life little but a relentless wave of uncertainty even with an outpouring of words and music, a mental illness shattering a perception, raking me through mud – I’ve learned to appreciate the minutia and mundanity of the day to day. I can sit in my chair and write or read, waiting for Allie to get home. Daily life shapes a worldview and brings into sharp focus that an understanding of time with a partner allows for a more free and willing appreciation for a life lived at all. Finding that kind of love is the purpose. Whatever the reality of a dreaded day job might entail, I have something most people only dream of. So hold hands. The song tells the story. The words sing the tune.