A few years ago, after a particularly acute heartbreak, I was searching literally and figuratively for brighter days ahead. I came across Dylan’s happy and horn-drenched At Budokan version of I Shall Be Released and found it aspirational. I blogged that, wishing song back into my heart.
This winter, another cover of the song crossed my browser, via Cover Lay Down. The performing here was more sparse but just as content.
“Standing next to me in this lonely crowd / Is a man who swears he’s not to blame / All day long I hear him shout so loud / Crying out that he was framed.” And yet we go on. “I see my light come shining….”
I’ve been interested the past few years in the topic of grief: how we find our way in and how we work out way out. The Meghan O’Rourke articles for Slate opened the door. With her making the topic not as much The Other as it had been, the spectrum of grieving and recovery fell into greater relief, not just for grief over death but loss in general.
When painful moments came along, stepping back and finding hope or just perspective felt easier. No, not easy, but easier. When O’Rourke’s book came out, The Long Goodbye, I read it as soon as I could. A theme of hers was getting caught in one’s thoughts. The person grieving was caught a little in memories but more so in the processing of sadness.
At the end of chapter one, O’Rourke writes about her own cancer scare vs. the cancer that took her mother, the core of the book. “Even today, the divergence of our stories seems like an accident to me,” she says.
“If we went back, I still wonder, could we change the story somehow? Could we take a right turn instead of a left? Seventeen months after her death, I walk through New York and watch the trees bloom once more, and she cannot. I think about how things turned out for each of us, and I recognize that it might be different for me next time. I don’t know what story to tell myself about that.” Chapter two ends similarly. She writes about the moments when her mother’s options dissipated:
I am still looking for the alternative outcome to this part of the story — as if had I pushed harder at one of these moments, had I been more aware, all would have changed. Choose Your Own Adventures were a fad when I was a kid. I had a sense of special providence, and if, reading a story I liked, I made a bad choice, I would pretend it hadn’t actually happened. I had, in essence, to lie to myself about my own poor outcomes. This was what I was doing then and it is what I am still doing, rummaging through the bric-a-brac of my mind for possible alternatives, the family silver that was put aside in the attic but still gleams unseen in the autumn sun.
The excerpts I read last year of Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, a book that arrived around the same time as O’Rourke’s, dealt with the death of his wife and was sometimes paired with O’Rourke’s in book reviews, spoke in quite a different language but felt caught as well.
This idea came back to mind recently after (everyone else and) I read Modern Love’s “Watching Them Watching Me.” A widower, a New York Times editor, wrote about his late wife and his teen sons. Soon came the Post‘s “The Vow,” about a loving wife watching her husband slip away mentally after his brain injury. Then in the last couple weeks, a good high-school friend lost his father. The funeral was last weekend at the historic Virginia church where his dad served years as rector.
Most recently, there has been the string of headlines from Chicago this week about wrong-way driving claiming innocent lives. I haven’t known anyone in the crashes, and I imagine neither have you. But if you have friends in Chicago, if you have loved ones, when you see the headlines on the Stevenson Expressway, on Lake Shore Drive, there is always a split-second of worry. We are all on the outer edges of grief and loss.
In Rob Sheffield’s Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, he doesn’t write much about losing his wife to cancer — the topic of his well-done and so sad first book, Life Is a Mix Tape. In Duran Duran, music and dating stories rule. But there is one passage that in an funny, obtuse, sad, real way nods to the first book. Sheffield writes of their early dating:
Not being able to protect her from things was the most frightening thing I’d ever felt, and it kicked in as soon as we got together. With every year we spent together, I became more conscious that I now had an infinitely expanding number of reasons to be afraid. I had something to lose.
That initial part of the passage hooks me good, and then it continues:
“You know the movie Swamp Thing? The mad scientist takes Adrienne Barbeau hostage shortly after her topless scene and uses her as bait to entrap the Swamp Thing. When the trap works, the mad scientist gives an evil laugh at the Swamp Thing and says, ‘The man who lives gives hostages to fortune.’ ” At the end of the day, that’s what I Shall Be Released means to me. We live and give our hostages to fortune. I am caught. You too. But stepping back, knowing we’re trapped, we’re framed with Dylan, recognizing our human condition, singing it, helps.