One of the ways that Zen practitioners “work” with Zen–at least in my lineage–has to do with noticing changes in your body.
Once you spend time sitting–just sitting–for thirty minutes at a time it’s a somewhat natural thing to start being able to identify, in your body, where you are “feeling” emotions. Zen also places an emphasis on direct experience–not “What did Buddha think?” or “What did this famous teacher think?” but, rather, “What did you feel? What did you think?” AS such, whenever I heard about locating emotions in the body, the teachers always emphasized that the place in my body where I feel loss, anger, shame, frustration, or sadness might be different than it is for anyone else. Whenever we discussed this in classes, I found it completely fascinating to hear the long-time practitioners speak about the heat of anger in their chest, or their shoulders, or their neck. And of course, learning about this hopefully means doing something about the knowledge that you’ve gained. Hearing members of the sangha talk about these things gave me a glimpse as to where I might be heading–towards the experience of being able to identify these emotions as they rise up, the first step towards being able to choose to react in a more reasoned way.
I ended up reading this entry (and this one too) today because of an upcoming (maybe)(hopefully?) Hard Like Algebra shift in direction, and the related archiving that could/will result. And that brought me back to Heretic Pride, and that brought me back to 2008, and that brought me back to “Autoclave” and a whole bunch of feelings.
I feel a lot of the best Mountain Goats work in my chest, but also in my throat. As an asthmatic, it feels something similar to that pre-sick “hey-am-I-getting-a-cold?” feeling that’s not an asthma attack or even a bit of wheezing, but it’s strong nonetheless. This is not the feeling of “Hey, life is awesome!” or even just looking up from the ruins to a brighter day that maybe “Fight Test” or “Some Nights” creates. The feeling from these Mountain Goats songs has an undercurrent of dread, some sort of painful recollection. It relates to my favorite idea related to catharsis, that you feel what you feel when you hear a great song because those were the feelings the songwriter/performer was feeling, too.
And let’s not forget, for me the Mountain Goats are one of those bands that always prompt an experience. I can’t just sort of half-assed listen to them and think it might just be background noise, or something that maybe I will notice and maybe I won’t. For me, there are a few bands like this, often my all-time (or at one point, biggest)favorites. Radiohead. Mid-period Wilco. R. E. M., at their most beautiful. I think of this music as my “don’t put this on in you’re too fragile or too happy” bands, because nothing can make me feel more hopeless than “No Surprises” on the wrong morning. Nothing makes me remember late high school heartbreak-mixed-with-love like “Nightswimming.” And The Sunset Tree remains the soundtrack of a world turned upside down and a job I got because there was nothing else to get. Or so I thought, at the time.
Looking back, 2008 had a lot going for it. I turned thirty, and Erin was firmly established in Portland. I had great friends at a job that gave me some satisfaction and a good chunk of change. Within six months I’d moved pretty quickly in an upward direction at work, using the internal certification system to help me learn quite a bit about coaching, training, students, and people. I would soon get myself a 20% role at work that put me in a position to help my awesome coworkers be even more awesome.
And then 2008 became a year of a lot of fucking shit, too. Erin can probably confirm that it was a tough year for us, one of the toughest (and I’m so glad we stuck through it, and I am grateful to her for that). There were epic arguments that year, probably exacerbated by a terrible apartment that was tricky as far as transit was concerned, and thus kept us isolated. Isolation during Portland’s epically rainy winters? Not good. No wonder why our anchor in that neighborhood was our coffeeshop.
And the job became progressively worse, became more of a grind, something that seemed to be chewing up some of my favorite people and spitting them out. One of our managers kinda flipped her shit (I imagine, based on heresay and what it looked like from the outside) and stopped managing. I believe that this is something that happens all the time now. It–like firings, like the feeling of being betrayed–was pretty unusual then. I would guess it’s not as unusual, now.
“Autoclave” came out that year. This was the first standout single, for me, off of Heretic Pride. It sang to me about being a “great, unstable, mass of blood and foam.” It featured another of my favorite artists. It talked about a last chance to feel human, about heading for the exits. “And no one in her right mind/Would make my home her home,” Darnielle and Annie sang, and it rang so very true.
And as I listened to this song today, I felt that tightness in my throat again, and I remembered 2820 SE Gladstone, and I remembered arguing in the rain, and I remembered feeling lost for eight (or more) hours a day.
Thank goodness that music does this for us. For me. Thank goodness that I have music to help me remember. To help me locate that pain, in my body, in my personal history. It’s not always fun, but it’s so important to have that anchor. So thank goodness for the artists that sing the songs that change us, that have changed me.
And thank goodness that I made it through that year, and the next few, and it didn’t kill me.
John Darnielle plays Autoclave (in front of the Fremont Troll).