Singing the Blues

The other day, my daughter, Jessica, wrote me a lovely note about my essay on very old age.  She thought it was well done but wished that I was not so preoccupied with death.  It’s easy to understand her concern.  I’m glad to know that she doesn’t want me to leave this world just yet.  But hers is not the only voice of concern.  Numbers of friends have also worried.   They take my interest in “dark” subjects to be a sign of depression or resignation.  I am a little chagrined at their angst.  I’m feeling good these days.  All this attention to illness, death, and dying  actually lifts my spirit.

I do understand the value of staying on the sunny side of the street—and I am often transported by upbeat music.  I get it that my father-in-law, Albert, when invited to watch upsetting movies, would always say “No thanks.  I get enough of that in life.  Give me a good, happy show tune and I’m a happy man.”  I love happy endings, too.  I enjoy the feel of optimism and sunshine.

But I also love the blues.  I love it straight when Billy Holiday sings Stormy Weather, and I love the way Count Basie transmutes that down and out feeling into a sense of well being.  Jazz has always been my favorite music.  Like my interest in difficult subjects, the blues has a way of “saying of things that are very painful, deep and poignant, with a feeling of ease. In the very best blues the pain changes, because of the music, into something light.”  That’s how I feel when I’m engrossed in a problem and when I’ve worked it through.  That’s how I feel with almost every essay I write for my blog.

Some of my pleasure comes from the act of making something artful out of darkness—or simply the pleasure in making something.  I have always loved making things—houses and kitchens and organizations.  The act of turning nothing into something, disorder into order, has an intrinsic delight for me.  As the critic, Alan Shapiro, says of jazz,That lightness and ease come to be because the musical form given to those feelings—in both the organization of the words and the notes—shows the world has a structure that is logical and sensible, and makes for a good time!” The pleasure of transforming sadness or fear into calm or joy ups the ante powerfully.

The very same essay that worried Jessica, brought comfort and shared relief to a number of people.  Numbers of friends of mine shared it with friends of theirs.  The shared story seems to make them feel closer.

Giving order and meaning to pain transforms it.  Here is how Alan Shapiro describes Bessie Smith singing Thinking Blues:

“… there is a wail in her voice, but there is also triumph and joy. For instance, as she sings the words “ever” and “thousand,” there is agony in her sliding blue notes, yet there is lightness, too; her voice rises on those words, giving them a lift. And as she sustains the word “old” at the start of the second verse, she sounds strong, assertive, but there is a beautiful trembling in her vibrato. Throughout, Bessie Smith’s voice is deep and bright, rich and piercing. As she sings, we feel the painful and the pleasing don’t have to fight; they can go together beautifully.”

During the years when I was most determined to understand myself,  the years I was learning to be a psychotherapist, people were talking about hallucinogenic drugs and the way they made deep explorations possible.  I avoided them, afraid that I might not be able to manage the demons within me.  A few years earlier, I had learned that a young man, who I had taken care of as a child, had blown his mind on an acid trip and had to be institutionalized.  That was not for me.  But the more familiar I grew with my demons, the less fearful I was.  Eventually, I embarked on my first journey into my darkest places in order to learn what was there.

Instead of hiding from my fears, I sought them out.  When you are tripping, fear first emerges as an atmosphere, like a dark cloudy day.  Instead of holding off  the clouds, I welcomed them.  Seeking insight, I beckoned the demons to come closer, hoping that they would stay around long enough for me to see them clearly.  I hoped that the insights gained would later help me resolve some of my fears.  But the demons just flowed by.  When you try to hold fear off, it becomes like the Tar Baby, sticking more and more.  I kept beckoning and looking and they kept flowing, which, for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time, put me in a very light and lovely mood.  And that’s how I emerged from my hallucinatory journey.  Ever since then, I have looked upon fears in a paradoxical way: by welcoming them, learning from them,  they flow by, leaving a feeling of peace in their wake.

Some of this transformation of mood can be explained physiologically, something like the emergence of the high or the calm following hard exercise.  Let me return to music in order to explain, this time through the eyes of science.  The appeal of sad music spans historical periods and cultures.  It evokes emotions such as bliss and awe—and  sadness.  What’s more, sad and mournful music is more likely than happy music to arouse the intensely pleasurable responses referred to as chills. This response, says Kristine Batcho, is partly attributable to the release of hormones like oxytocin and prolactin, which are associated with social bonding, nurturance, and a sense of well being.

I like that the research brings together civilization’s long history of pairing pain and pleasure.  As an old rock n roller, Theresa Brewer, once sang, “you can’t have one without the other.”  It is generally pain and fear that open the heart to the richness within.  We see what we have avoided and learn that it is bearable.  This single insight—that we can bear to see almost any feeling, thought, or fantasy, that we can know ourselves without revulsion—gives us the courage to live less fearfully and more fully.

Facing our demons leads to what might be called an authentic encounter with ourselves, which then emboldens us to live more compassionately with others.  When listening raptly and entering into the lyrics of sad songs, listeners know that others have shared sorrow.  We all know about lovers who have left, parents and grandparents who have died, friends who have found other friends.  For the time that the music is playing, each of us becomes part of a of a compassionate community of listeners.  For that moment, we feel close to others and at greater ease with ourselves.

So my dear daughter, fear not.  I dwell in these dark places because they lighten my life.  Like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Key Largo, I am always in search of sunshine breaking through after a storm that only seems too great to survive.

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