I was sitting here, on my big green couch, in LA, watching the NBC coverage of the Olympics. It was Saturday night and we seemed to have taken an unexpected turn into the story of World War II – not sure why and, surprisingly, it has prompted this entire blog.
For me, after years of growing up in England, watching BBC documentaries on WWII, something finally sank in that night, when NBC spelled out that the Germans bombed London every single night for 73 consecutive days (the Blitz). Really imagine that! Suddenly it was easy to picture being there, having to run deep underground into the bowels of London’s underground system – the subways – every night to sleep with 1000’s of other strangers-becoming-friends, and being dazed every morning as you’d come back into the light of day from the train tunnels only to see nothing as you remembered it from the day before. Rubble, rising dust clouds, eery quiet, silent bodies, missing buildings, unfamiliar sounds of recovery, loss and surprise. Death had come to visit. And it got me thinking… death matters; but why?
Well, it opens the door to unexpected relationships, for one…
As I watched the old black and white footage of crumbling, smouldering London, and listened to the gravely voices of british newscasters I understood something instantly about camaraderie and how it comes about. All these previous strangers had had their realities – their individual lives – merged by exploding boundaries, disappearing buildings, disappearing lifestyles, disappearing lives. They had to queue up to share food – they were always hungry and their lives, their reference points, their habit patterns… all gone. It was a devastating moment to witness. I saw death dissolve boundaries between lives and habits. Suffering bringing whole groups of people close together. Watching it merge realities, normal was no longer the familiar visitor. The living room was empty.
Now, I’ve been around death – from an early age. Which does not mean it has been my friend, in my opinion. Three weeks after my 14th birthday, my mother died suddenly, from a brain aneurism. I was too young to have any understanding of what that actually meant, so I focused on the results, watching people become withdrawn, dumbfounded and broken. Myself, well I felt embarrassed that I was no longer ‘normal’ amongst my friends (I was assuming it normal to have two parents and I think I was also assuming that death was weird, a social deformity) and self conscious to have this extra attention on me – people asking me how I was. It felt like a burden (I felt like a burden) and my place in the world raw and ‘displaced’. I think I actually wondered if it was still alright to be here, without her. It was a bit like being in a space suit far out in a dark universe, held only by an umbilical cord of connection, but to absence. She had been my absolute compass in the world, my ‘ground zero’. I was utterly lost without her. I watched my mother’s friends well up with tears when they’d talk about her but I felt nothing.
I actually didn’t know how to be sad. And I don’t know why.
Life changed abruptly after that, although you might not have known it to look at us as a family. We tried hard to make everything carry on, as if we were doing her part for the family, on her behalf. If we were a car, the engine had been removed and we all jumped out to take turns pushing the car, the same car, to the same destinations, but without an engine. We tried so hard to make it seem the same. It still hurts to think about that. All that suffering and no-one talking about it… we really didn’t know how (sound familiar?). And I spent as much time as possible not thinking about death. So, when I ask ‘why does death matter?’ I have to say because it changes things irrevocably and dramatically (I’ve since learned that death can have a certain peacefulness to it, as when my father died more slowly – I like having time to say goodbye). And why does change matter? We’ll come to that.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross talks about seven stages of grief. 1. Shock and Denial (yup) 2. Pain and Guilt (yup) 3. Anger and Bargaining (oh yes… I just wrote a song ‘Freedom’ about letting go of all the anger) 4. Depression, Reflection, Loneliness (indeed, lots of it and very painful it is) 5. The Upward Turn (I’ll come back to that, although the song in Freedom’s next line is about ‘feeling all the grief subside’) 6. Reconstruction and Working Through (hmmm, sounding a bit ‘new-agey’… perhaps I’m still working on that one) 7. Acceptance and Hope (getting there, getting there).
I think death and grief are so interlinked that it’s hard to really form a ‘happy’ relationship to death because of its associations with suffering – it’s not a strong selling point.
And talking about feelings is hard – and it’s so crucial to ‘moving on’ (oh how I hated that phrase – it made personal timing so public! I actually used to feel like there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t forgive). Talking about feelings – it’s so physical, as well as emotional. Have you noticed? Because death changes the boundaries, it also changes the rules. There’s a feeling of ‘all bets are off’. That can be both disorienting, confusing and, after a bit of time, I noticed for me a certain defiance set in (and I was just becoming a teenager), as if I was walking on the other side of a thin line where social etiquette and rules didn’t apply. I saw myself as ‘special’ because of my suffering (I was really just angry and sad) – exploited the pity where I could, and avoided it, with equal force, as it felt quite repulsive to me. I actually felt weak because I needed love. God! So death can be disturbing to our equilibrium. I think defiance is a way to avoid feeling grief. And I was very good at it.
Because of my early acquaintance with death, after the somewhat excruciating numbness, pain and anger, I also developed a proactive relationship to the unseen world – I became curious. I was motivated by this lack of cognition of what death was, where it fitted into life and where it actually was – and I mean physically, where did people go?? Was death a place? Why weren’t we all talking about it?? Death made me ask questions. Important questions. About life. And I found that not everyone wants to join in that kind of conversation, in fact very few do – bit frustrating, really. As a younger child, before my mother died, I was very dreamy and contemplative – I saw magic in life but had not yet separated from it so did not consider it as a ‘subject’ but merely as reality. I ‘knew’ things, could read people’s energy (often feeling confused by the disparity between their words and their energy signals) and atmospheres in rooms. I could (can) even receive other people’s thoughts, like a dolphin, so I knew there was a lot more to life than people were letting on. And I was curious. Very. Still am. And if you’re not, I have to ask, ‘why?’
Moving on a number of decades, six days ago, my seven year marriage was officially dissolved. And, it is probably no coincidence that with the death of my marriage, I have come down to LA to record some of the most amazing music of my career. So death brings new life (I know, I know, it sounds so Christian!). It clears out the closets of the old, allowing new possibilities to come a-knocking. I’d say death makes us face our own readiness for our lives and our (in?)ability to let go into its inevitable movements forward. And I think I’m still a bit afraid of it, truth be told. Although I think I’ve noticed that subsiding exponentially, in relation to my sense-of-self arising. Actually, how is it possible to be afraid of something on the one hand, and strangely comfortable with it on the other?
You see, one of the doors that death opened for me was this sense of feeling comfortable around other people’s genuine suffering (and strangely short on patience around their insincere suffering). For instance, I was a visiting artist at Oakland Children’s Hospital for about four years and would take in music (my own) and play it to children in isolation (sometimes wearing cap, gown and mask), families visiting their children and even staff. Now, maybe it’s just me being me, but I have to think that having spent so many years fighting my own invisible battle with death and its imminence (or should I say immanence) that I felt such an easy empathy for these people and for what they were fearing, that I just sort of turned into an angel at work – feeling waves of love pour out towards them, caring deeply that they felt somehow held and lifting them up with a presence that felt like it came through me (like walking, singing, Reiki).
All this came up unexpectedly (isn’t that just like death!) in the recording studio last week. Serendipity, death and fate must be good friends, I think (I wonder which myth depicts that triad?). I had been sitting in the garden with my guitar, on the day of my annulment, last Sunday, writing a song, feeling strangely peaceful (I had totally forgotten what a portentous day it was). I wrote a song that felt very happy and free [“Freedom” aka ‘Dreaming with Wings’ – playing below]. Took it into the studio, recorded guitar parts and then it came to the vocals. Now some of you will know that I both sing – and teach singing – with a focus on authenticity. What this means is that it is impossible for me to sing and not feel any emotions that are hiding in my body. So I sang about two lines, was halfway through the third and had to stop. I took a moment, tried again and just burst into tears, sobbed, in front of my producer and new friend, Jeff, who jumped up to hug me, concern splattered sweetly all over his face. Then, immediately after that, I withdrew, my interior world suddenly and silently emptied of words and, weirdly, emotions; as if every thought that had occupied space in my mind vacated and left me alone to feel me, be me, alone with my grief and my sense of death. My insides had turned to rock, actually I had turned to rock (which felt strangely calming) and I didn’t want to speak – there seemed no point. Words became costume jewellery. ‘I’m so sad my marriage has ended!’ I had finally managed to blurt out. Oh, the pain of letting go. I know you know it.
So, again, why does death matter? Because it breaks our hearts open. It keeps us real. It brings us home. And, as I say in my new song ‘Freedom’, it brings us closer to our angels. It seems they are ongoingly waiting for ways to connect. They are very patient, aren’t they:) (thank you, Angels). (Again with the Christian references, sorry! It’s not really my bag but sometimes the language just fits!). We cannot fake our lives when death is looming. It tears us apart, forces us to melt. If we don’t surrender into the grief it brings, our hearts cannot break and, if they do not break, then we never really become whole. So perhaps, is it odd to consider death as strangely generous? I sometimes imagine that we make a pact with life before we are born. And that pact is to let our hearts be broken again and again in order that each time it heals it becomes that much bigger and that much more capable of holding and exuding love. And so we become fully human.
Perhaps death is the harbinger of love. And love is our evolution?
How brave are you when the end of something is looming… do you waste years waiting for that particular freight train to pass you by… as if it is not going to pass through your station and take you, and some of your dreams, with it?
I do trust death now, more than I used to – it’s a bit like vomiting. Something I try hard to avoid and always feel so grateful for after the fact, when the chills and fever fade and I can finally come back home, to the me that I truly recognize, rather than the me that I spent so much time manufacturing, just to be safe.
On my 45th birthday, I stood atop the Tor in Glastonbury, England, and sank into the release of acceptance of my own mortality, again, and after a brief rush of sadness, something in me lifted… I highly recommend it:) And, right about now, death is the biggest prompter for me to get on with what I love, which is to sing my socks off for film and tv – and win an Oscar. So, what’s your dream? I hope I see you on the other side! (Of your dream, that is).
Oh, and if death wasn’t in my life, our lives, then how the hell would I know what to do when it’s my turn? And how would I measure my life? How would I value anything? The old adage ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ – perhaps it’s the anticipation of parting that provokes us to stretch for joy. What do you think of that idea:)?
Thanks for reading, it’s been a pleasure:)
And, perhaps you feel like considering this question of Death yourself… how, or why, are you finding that it matters to you? Big question, I know.
Please enjoy “Freedom” (more recently retitled ‘Dreaming with Wings’)