My friend Matt gave me a copy of Phil Elverum's newest album last weekend, "A Crow Looked at Me". Phil Elverum may be better known to some of you as the artist that records under the name "Mount Eerie". He was also the force behind "The Microphones". Matt gave me the album with the strong caution that it may not be the best record for me to listen to right now. He said he could only listen to it a couple of times before he had to stop. While potentially a master work, it is very intense.
The story behind his album feels like my story, and the story of so many others. On July 9th, 2016 Elverum's wife, Genevieve, died. Just four days after Melly. She was just 35, leaving behind an infant daughter. In an instant lives changed.
In Phil's case there was some anticipation, but that does not lessen the harshness of it. No one expects to be widowed in their mid-30s. There is no guidebook to any of it. You are left suddenly alone, to grasp blinding through he darkness for the path forward. It feels like you've been ripped in two, alternating between being untethered from the world, weightless to float away, and being crushed under the weight of emotions you could not have imagined even existed.
My response to get all of the weight out my system was to begin writing this blog. Putting together my experiences and thoughts. Phil's journey found him recording what eventually became "A Crow Looked at Me". I have listened to the album a few times now, and each time I am struck by how close the emotions and experiences feel to my own; from receiving packages Melly ordered on Amazon a few days before she died, including new bedsheets bought in response to argument we'd had the day before, to trying to assign mystical explanations to something as simple as a flock of geese.
You walk around in a fog, not fully aware of the world around you or how apparent your emotions are, stripped bare for the world to see. It can be embarrassing. Cringe worthy. I go back and read some of my past posts and they can feel like an overshare. At the same time, sharing them feels natural and valid, and I refuse to go back and edit them.
I started writing everything down publicly for two reasons, the first being that writing in a private journal proved too dark. My journal became an echo chamber. It was taking me to some places I did not want to go.
The second reason I started publicly writing ties into the first. When I decided to look for help, for grief counselors or support groups, I started with a Google search. All I could find were links to studies examining the increased suicide rate among my peer group. This was decidedly not helpful.
My solution to change the conversation was to start this page, to begin the conversation openly with all of you. I started by writing about the loneliness, the emptiness of our grief. As those feelings were released I started to feel a return of some happiness and joy. Like a hot air balloon cutting ballast, each entry, each counseling and group session, took off some of the weight. There is still a long, long way to go. Each day is full of surprises good and bad. Emotions discovered.
Enter the new Mount Eerie album, and the strange feelings of random connectedness. This beautiful and sad album, and the story that surrounds it has been in my head for past few days. The coincidences in our stories feel more consequential, more universal. Which is perhaps the point. Death is one of the few universal experiences, intensely personal, but openly shared. "A Crow Looked at Me" is at once Phil Elverum's story, for him alone to tell, and also the story of each of us to hear and hold close.
Death is real / Someone is there and they're not / and it's not for singing about / it's not for making into art.
I hung around your neck independently / and my loss was overwhelmed / By this new depth I don't think I ever felt / But I don't know, the nights are cold / and I remember warmth / I could have sworn I wasn't alone.
Those two sets of lyrics come from two different songs, recorded 15 years apart. The first is from the opening track, "Real Death", of Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me. The second is from "I Felt Your Shape" by The Microphones, off of The Glow Pt. 2. The two songs serve as musical milestones in my life with Melly.
The Glow Pt. 2 came out in September, 2001, just after we started dating. "I Felt Your Shape" spoke to me above most of the other tracks on the album. I could never quite quantify the reasons. We were married in 2005. When it came time to plan our wedding I steadfastly refused to hire a DJ. I did not want our wedding to be a repeat of others we had been to, full of music I disliked and surrounded by poorly coordinated interpretations of the Macarena. I was a militant hipster. Better that no one have fun than I be forced to sit through 3 minutes of Christina Aguilera (I can't say that this stubbornness has gone away with age).
My solution was to program all of the music as a playlist on my iPod. We would run it during dinner and the party afterward. I chose "I Felt Your Shape" as the closing song for the evening. Something about it just felt right.
I found myself revisiting that wedding playlist last summer as I picked out music for the other gatherings. The Glow Pt. 2, along with a couple of other albums from the early 2000s, went into a standard rotation on my stereo. I was grasping for something familiar, and music served as a touchpoint to happier memories.
I found myself assigning metaphysical meanings to ordinary events. I still do this. Some people have called it "Magical Thinking". You see an animal or you hear a song, and you experience it through the lens of your loss. Suddenly that butterfly is her. That song that came on random is a special message.
Maybe this is true. I hope it is, because it makes the days easier. The little messages make the stark reality somehow easier to take. At the end of the summer I took a road trip to the Painted Desert in northern Arizona to see if I could find her spirit. After I long day in the car, just as I was pulling into the driveway, "I Felt Your Shape" came on random on the iPod. One song out of roughly 30,000. Full of meaning, and an nice touching off point to some events later than night that I still can only explain as Melly coming in to say hello, that she is ok.
At the same time that I was drawing strength from The Microphones, their frontman, Phil Elverum, was no doubt looking for some of his own.
This may be what is affecting me the most about the coincidences in our stories. Never mind the timing of our twin losses, or the similarities in age, or musical tastes. What fascinates me is that this small piece of music, created in a happier time and assigned joyous meanings by a fan could take on such a psychic meaning to that same fan at the darkest time in his life; when at that same dark time the artist may have been in need of the same experience.
I want to reach out to Phil and say thank you, to relay my heartfelt gratitude for The Glow Pt. 2. I want to tell him what that album meant and means to me; and now, hearing A Crow Looked at Me and the story behind it, I want to reach out and somehow return the favor.
I have heard many people in my situation, grieving parents and spouses, comment that this is like a terrible and close knit club. I have probably said the same. It is true. It is also true that it is far easier to be insular and not share the experience with anyone else. For me this was proving to be unhealthy. Getting something out into the sunlight, naming what you fear most, takes away the power of that thing. That's why I started writing. That's why I have an unyielding respect for people like Phil Elverum and Patton Oswalt.
The reason for why The Glow Pt. 2 affected me so much in 2001, in 2005, and last summer, did not make sense to me, until it did this past week when I heard the story behind A Crow Looked at Me. It makes me question what other things have come into my life and attached themselves to my soul for unknown reasons. What else will be revealed to me with time? Who is reading these posts today that may need them tomorrow? It is not for us to reason why, it is for us to do and die.
I continue to write for my own selfish purposes, because it makes me feel closer to my wife and son. Because it helps me to understand this strange new place. Because maybe it will help someone the way that others have helped me.