There is a running joke in my family that Jason Isbell is trying to kill me. You know, Jason Isbell of the “best songwriter of his generation” muckety-muck and acclaim? Each time (of the three times) I’ve bought a ticket for one of his shows, I have been laid low by an absurdly strong plague, reduced to an afflicted puddle of self-pity on the couch.
There has been Norovirus. There’s been Strep. The flu stopped in for a visit, ushering in a double ear infection. Speculation arose in my friend circle that a vortex rending the fabric of space and time would spin out of the sky were I to actually attend a Jason Isbell show. Fortunately, all that really happened was that I drank an overpriced soda and shamed the really tall guy in front of me into jamming out a bit to the right. I may have been disappointed by the complete absence of cosmic spectacle. I may also have been a bit loopy on cough syrup and total lack of restorative sleep.
If you don’t know who Jason Isbell is, just Google his name and any combination of the words “redemption,” “gut-wrenching” and “Southern Gothic.” Then, spend a few hours thumbing through the resulting wordgasms penned by keyboard jockeys punch-drunk with rhapsodic Isbellitis. It’ll get you right up to speed.
I’m telling you all of this, gentle reader, to punctuate the improbable truth that the one time I actually made it see the famous Jason Isbell–the ONE time I actually arrived and heard this dude play–I hadn’t even gone to see him.
Nope. I dragged myself there (ear infections and all) to hear the opening act.
Amanda Shires, an extraordinary fiddle player, singer and songwriter was slated to perform beforehand at the Raleigh show. She’s Isbell’s wife, and stayed onstage to accompany him during the main event. But, I wanted to see her perform her own stuff. And, because the world doesn’t know its you-know-what from a hole in the ground sometimes, she isn’t yet well-known enough to do the big tours he does. I had already resigned myself to road tripping alone to Nashville just to hear her play for an hour.
You’ve probably experienced this yourself, but there are some artists that you’re very aware you’re enjoying with the totality of that artist’s fan base. For instance, even when you’re alone in your car, if “Don’t Stop Believing” comes on, it always kind of feels like if you rolled down your windows at the stoplight, everyone else would be singing along too. It’s a shared musical thought we all could narrate together at any minute. But, there are other performers you keep like a secret you have just for yourself. When you show up to an event of theirs, it’s almost jarring that other people are even there, singing those familiar words. And each of those strangers carries inside themselves a personal meaning and a living song—just like you do.
So there I was, at my first Amanda Shires concert, also seeing Jason Isbell as the free gift with purchase. And, what else does one do to seal in that memory but buy a t-shirt? (If you’re not the kind of person who buys a t-shirt at concerts, I can’t even with you.) Standing in the heat of the merchandise line behind a gentleman who truly could have benefited from a trip down the personal hygiene aisle, I noticed that there were no Amanda Shires t-shirts. None. There were only Isbell t-shirts. I stood there anyway, hoping that the guy behind the merchandise table could pull a few from some magical stack I couldn’t see. But, there simply weren’t any.
I half-heartedly bought a stretchy, grey Jason Isbell shirt. It wasn’t the souvenir I wanted or expected. But, I keep trying it on, noticing it doesn’t fit and then shoving it back in my top drawer to take up space anyway.
And damn it, y’all, isn’t that just like life a lot of the time?
Sometimes…sometimes at especially pivotal moments, the universe just doesn’t give you the takeaway you envision. Your souvenir is second best or it’s actively terrible. Life packed your bag not with what you deserved, but with some other grotesque, unwanted care package. And there you are. Holding it. Staring warily at it. Trying to figure out how to hoist it up onto your back so you can stay the course on a road that suddenly seems a lot longer.
It’s the affair your wife had with a coworker after you took care of her through more sickness than health.
It’s the addiction your teenager developed even though you tirelessly sacrificed for him to have a wonderful childhood.
It’s the panic attacks you have as you try to make sense of being violently attacked when you were just out buying cereal in your sweat pants.
Maybe it’s not even one singular thing, but it’s the thousands of small, wretched souvenirs you are toting around from traversing the landscape of a marriage that’s crumbling or a job that breaks your spirit and insults your intelligence. As Charles Bukowski said, it’s often “not the large things that send a man to the madhouse…no, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to the madhouse…not the death of his love but a shoelace that snaps with no time left…and the dread of life is that swarm of trivialities…”
When you’re dreading the weight you’re carrying along with you, trivial or not, it’s time to edit the collection. You can only be an emotional Sherpa for so many things. Your heart is not a democracy in which everyone gets a vote on filling up the empty spaces with the detritus of his or her own struggles. Edit. Trim down the hurt.
I floridly hate therapists and life coaches who tout that there’s one fail-proof way to logic through the hard times. I don’t think there is, and I don’t trust anyone who believes in one-size-fits-all emotional solutions. Rather, we have to trust that for each of us there is a process towards health that may not be immediately apparent, and which also might require some careful trips down blind alleyways before presenting itself. The process is in and of itself the important part. Discovering the emotional vehicle by which you’ll take a stand against hoarding people, feelings and memories that no longer serve you is a sacred journey. Will you meditate? Write letters you may or may not send? Discover activism? Teach yoga to women at the domestic violence center downtown? Rediscover your faith in something?
Therapy is a place where you figure out why and how to do the work. Consider it the platform from which you begin to discern just how much of you is available for change.
Few things give me the sads more quickly than a scared, traumatized client who believes she has Law of Attractioned an atrocity into her life that can only be healed by thinking perfectly good, magical thoughts. That’s not to say that I don’t think we have the majority stake in creating our experiences. But, our authorship is always in collaboration with the universal intelligence, our bodies, people around us, larger societal realities, and other things over which we absolutely cannot have sole dominion. And anyway, groundedness doesn’t require perfection as its primary fuel. Simply put, emotional health is a commitment to looking at all the parts as they move and recalibrating when new information arrives.
My impression, both personally and professionally is that resilience happens when we make good friends with the idea that we are often holding the space with thoughts, experiences and sensations that suck. Periods of pain are not avoidable. They can be the forges in which we are shaped into something rad by the fires of hardship. But let’s be honest, they can also be the pigsties in which we get drenched in crap. Poetic, I know. I’m a woman of the pen.
I invite you to take a good look at the things you’re carrying around, particularly the ones that no longer render happiness or useful pain. Then, engage in some process (therapy, meditation, retreats, creating art, helping someone else) that helps you curate the emotional relics that are worth keeping around. Souvenirs of past experiences are wonderful when they continue to create meaning in your life. Otherwise, they’re like my Jason Isbell shirt—uncomfortable, not quite what I wanted, and taking up space I could be using for things that are a better fit.
Would you like to come in and rifle through your emotional inventory? Is it time to reorganize your ledger of relational debts? Do you just want somewhere to show off your latest concert tee? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.
Your Partner in Healing,
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