‘Angst’ by Lysander666
I am delighted to announce that my new article on underrated dark ambient albums from the past decade is now published on I Die: You Die, an outstanding and highly respected music blog that I’ve followed since its inception in 2011. The editors called my knowledge of the genre “encyclopedic” and referred to me as an expert on the subject. I don’t think I’d go quite that far myself, but since I’ve become fairly well known in my local Pagan community as the “go-to” person for dark ritual ambient recommendations and am working on a book manuscript on the subject (Endarkenment: The Esoteric in Dark Ambient Music and Culture), I think it’s safe to say I have a thing or two to say about it.
If you have enjoyed my previous series of posts here on dark ambient (Dark Ritual Ambient: A Primer for the Dark Pagan, Vols. one, two, and three), this piece will be right up your alley. There is even a brand new track from Skadi, now featured on my I Die: You Die article exclusively, courtesy of the artist. Enjoy!
Shrine for Móðguðr, October 2013
Here is my new shrine in honour of Móðguðr, the ancestors, and the beloved dead. I absolutely love it, and I think She is pleased as well. I am performing a special devotional midnight tea ritual for Móðguðr at the Hermitage tonight, as I celebrate and enjoy the many blessings of solitude.
Hail Móðguðr, guardian of Helheim’s gate!
The soundtrack for the rites this evening includes some of my all-time favourite creepy, haunting, genuinely scary dark ambient albums:
1) Aghast – Hexerei Im Zwielicht der Finsternis
2) Brighter Death Now – Necrose Evangelicum
3) Allseits – Hel
4) Innfallen – Three Days of Darkness
October is my favourite month and the month of my birth. I’m pretty clueless about astrology myself, and haven’t really been able to get into it, but I’m told by an astrologer friend who did my chart that I’m a triple water sign: Scorpio sun, Cancer moon, and Pisces ascendant. (Apparently, with all that water influence, it isn’t too surprising that I’m a strong empath.) October is also a very active time for me spiritually. I’ve been working very hard all month, and the Endarkenment redecoration project is now almost complete – photos coming soon! With luck, the psychomanteum (mirror gazing room and spiritual incubation space) will be finished within a few weeks, and when the time comes to begin booking sessions for guests, I will post the details here and on the Facebook page for the Hermitage.
‘Cycle Recycled’ by Lysander of Heathen Harvest
By popular request, here is volume three of my series on dark ritual ambient music for the discriminating dark Pagan. (Also see volumes one and two, if you haven’t already.) As I’ve mentioned before, this list is driven by my sensibilities as a dark fusion dancer. I select tracks for inclusion on this list based almost entirely on how deeply they move me to dance, and how well they suit the ritual space I want to create for my dance. As usual, there are 13 tracks. Enjoy!
1) New Risen Throne – Dead, Scourged Sun
“Chthonic ritual doom ambient” is the phrase I came up with to describe the music that stirs up the most primal responses in me, and I think it fits the music of New Risen Throne perfectly. There’s at least one NRT track – and usually several – on every dark ambient playlist I’ve compiled so far.
Gabriele Panci (a.k.a. Stielh) from Italy is one of my top two favourite dark ambient musicians. So far, I have not heard a single track from him that I dislike, and since I have very finicky tastes, I can count on one hand the number of musicians I can say that about. His music is pure bone-chilling sonic wonder, and “Dead, Scourged Sun” is apocalyptic and haunting in the best possible way.
2) Desiderii Marginis – Come Ruin and Rapture
From my Grief and Mourning playlist comes this forlorn, melancholy lament from the 2012 release “Procession” by the Swedish musician Johan Levin. This track speaks to me as a form of barely-restrained, raw emotional honesty spilling over in the wake of a profound loss. I wear a black diaphanous veil to help me translate the grief in this track into the language of ritual dance.
3) Robert Rich and Brian Williams – Undulating Terrain
The “Stalker” album from Robert Rich with Brian Williams of Lustmord is a classic in the dark ambient genre for good reason, and this track has long been my favourite. I love the calm and mesmerising progression that lures the listener in at the outset, then builds into a creepy crescendo at the end. The atmospheric black-and-white video is nicely coordinated with the flow of the music; I particularly like the part with the slow-mo dripping water, and the way it follows the chain into dark waters at the end. Hypnotic.
(Note, added 25 Sep 2013: It has come to my attention that the video I originally linked to has been removed by YouTube for copyright violations. Here is another link to the track, but without the video, unfortunately. And while I’m at it, I apologise for any broken links in my earlier posts. Chasing down broken YouTube links in these posts is going to get old. Perhaps from here on out I should stick to tracks available on sites like SoundCloud, last.fm, and Bandcamp only. I’ll give this some thought.)
4) Taphephobia – Waiting for the Silence
Top-notch deep drone ambient soundscapes from the “Black City Skyline” album by Ketil Søraker from Norway, who is also involved with Mulm (another project I love). The atmosphere of this track is so beautifully reflective, mystical, and melancholy…it’s a perfect musical accompaniment for midnight tea rituals at the Hermitage. When I dance to it, I find that improv works better than choreography.
Looking forward to Taphephobia’s new album, “Escape From the Mundane Self,” which will be released this autumn on Cyclic Law.
5) Lamia Vox – Metasilentium
What lurks in the abyss…? This track may inspire you to find out. From my playlist for The Dark Divine comes this track from the “Introductio” album – a musical nigredo from the talented Russian musician Lamia Vox. Sounds an ominous note right off the bat, and doesn’t let go. Creepy, compelling, and a perfect accompaniment to my devotional rites for Móðguðr, guardian of Hel’s gate and the river Gjöll.
6) Gydja – Beyond the Earth’s Edge
Outstanding music from Abby Helasdottir, a.k.a. Gydja, of New Zealand – the person who coined the word Rökkatru. I remember how excited I was when I first discovered her Shadowlight website. At the time I had never heard of anyone who was doing esoteric work like this – focused on the Rökkr as well as dark and subterranean worlds…and she’s a dark ambient musician too? I was – and still am! – very impressed. Her website and music has been a big influence on me; it helped me find the courage to accept my own darker spiritual path.
“Umbilicus Maris” is my favourite of her albums; it inspires visions of descent into dark, watery subterranean worlds. This track and “Snakestone” are my favourites for ritual dance. The album can be heard in its entirety on her bandcamp site.
7) Hyios – Crater
Hyios is music for dark Earth mystics and Underworld travelers. “Intense” would be an apt description of “Consuetudines,” the album this track is taken from. It deepens my meditation like nothing else. The album was an acquired taste for me; when I first heard it in 2009, I was very much enthralled with the imagery and liked a couple of the tracks well enough, but then for whatever reason I set it aside and focused my attention on other music. It sat on my shelf for a few years, as if it were waiting patiently for my musical tastes and awareness to shift, such that I could fully appreciate it. I rediscovered it earlier this year, and now I wonder how I could have failed to appreciate its depth and brilliance for so long. This track, “Crater,” speaks to me of the eternal lure of subterranean stone passageways and stalactite-draped chambers. Listen, and immerse yourself.
As a great review by Kaliglimmer puts it:
“Upon leafing through the digipack I am…enthralled. Runes, greek letters, a pyramid and a pharaonic individual and several oblique and mystical references…The inside cover also contains the words “cultus subterraneus”, and this translates well to the images that float around in my head as I listen…I can nearly feel the cold granite against my bare feet as I descend a spiral staircase into the bowels of mother earth, dressed only in an acolyte’s humble garments.”
8) Lapis Niger – Black Serpent Dance
This mesmerising, meditative track from Swedish author and musician Tommie Eriksson (also of Saturnalia Temple) has inspired many nights of shadowy serpentine ritual dance choreography at the Hermitage. The album “At the Throne of Melek Taus” was released in 2008, and it is excellent for ritual. Here’s hoping he makes more dark ambient music in a similar vein.
9) Inade – Disconnecting States
There are many tracks from Inade that I’ve loved for years – “Through the Gates of Death,” “The Engine of the Mind,” and “The Tellurian Vortex” come to mind, for starters. But I found the spoken word parts in this track off-putting at first. Over time, though, it’s grown on me to the point that it has become one of my favourite Inade tracks, and now I dance to it unreservedly.
10) Dead Factory – Silesia
It would be a stretch to call this restrained track from the Polish musician Maciej Mutwil, a.k.a. Dead Factory, “dark ritual ambient”; it’s probably best described as cold, minimalistic ambient with industrial elements. But it inspires me to dance nonetheless, and since this list is driven not by genre boundaries or conventions but by my sensibilities as a dark fusion dancer, here it is for your enjoyment (and mine, of course.)
11) Cisfinitum – District Delta
Does it get any sadder than this in dark ambient? I’m not sure. Astonishingly beautiful…this track from the Russian musician Eugene Voronovsky is overflowing with heart and soul. Sometimes I avoid listening to this track because I know it will make me cry, and I simply can’t handle any more tears at the moment. (Just in case it isn’t clear, that means I’m giving it my highest recommendation.)
12) Phelios – Deadspace
Crisp, cold, richly layered atmospheric beauty from Martin Stürtzer of Germany, swirling and spiraling into the depths of the void, exploring deadspace…yet breathing life into it at the same time.
The new Phelios album, “Gates of Atlantis,” has just been released via Malignant, by the way. I’ve heard that it is his best yet, and “Astral Unity” (from which this track was taken) was marvelous. I eagerly await my copy.
13) Phragments – The Return
This dramatic, orchestral track from “Earth Shall Not Cover Their Blood,” a superb and highly recommended album by the Slovakian duo Phragments – Matej Gyarfas and Sonic(k) – dredges up grandiosity, desolation, and dread…and exquisitely so, I might add. ‘Tis a fitting conclusion for this list.
As I read through this list, one thing I especially appreciate is the international reach of dark ambient. In this post alone, I have tracks included from musicians in Italy, Sweden, the USA, Norway, Russia, New Zealand, Germany, Poland, and Slovakia. Nice!
Up next for Volume 4 of this series, I will be posting 13 of my favourite tracks from one of my most beloved playlists: Chthonic Ritual Doom Ambient. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!
Recently I read that “writing is a performance art.” I hadn’t considered it in quite that light before, but yes, it most definitely is. Every time I put my written work out there, on this blog or anywhere else where it can be read by others, I am stepping out onto the stage, just as surely as I would in a dance performance.
Like any performer, I have inadvertently become a target for all kinds of projections, many of which have nothing to do with who I am. Since I often write about my personal life, it complicates things even more. Awhile back I received a long fan letter from a 21 year old reader who had just found one of my older published essays and was practically bursting at the seams with effusive praise. He poured his heart out to me, in extremely over-the-top, flowery language, asking if I would “kindly welcome” him aboard my “stupendously honorary team.” (Heh.) He wanted to correspond personally with me and told me he hoped I would “share my thoughts with him”. Eep! I appreciated the compliments, of course, and I always appreciate knowing that people are reading and enjoying my work, but it wasn’t easy to write him a let-down letter.
Being on this end of the “fan mystique” is a new experience for me. But I remember vividly the intense exhilaration I experienced at his age when I discovered a writer whose work really spoke to me, so I tried to be gentle in my reply to him. Brings to mind a quote I love from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s amazing book Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life:
“…the exchange of meaning between a writer and a reader can be exceptionally intimate. It is one of the joys of reading; people expect it (though many times they do not get it if the writing is poor). It is crucial to remember that there is always a reaching toward intimacy whenever a reader picks up a book and begins to read.”
As I read through his letter, I smiled and remembered my own youthful literary enthusiasms and cringe-worthy over-eager fan letters to other writers. He came across as such a sweet kid, clueless though he is about the harsher realities of being a writer, and he seemed to have a certain facility with the English language. I wrote a reply to him in which I encouraged him to keep writing, keep honing his craft, and keep following the callings of his heart. It was kind of bittersweet. I told him I thought he’d do pretty well with a good editor to help him trim down all that florid prose. (I did talk briefly about the unglamorous realities of writing, but I did it gently. I left out the part about how I’ve survived on food stamps for three years now, and have sometimes turned down social opportunities because spending $5 on bus fare stretches my shoestring budget past the breaking point. I mean, what starry-eyed young writer really wants to hear that struggling artist stuff?)
Later on, I posted about this on Facebook, and a musician friend, Henry Lauer, commented:
“I’ve had similar experiences in the past as a musician. If you do a good performance, then you enable your audience to connect with something vulnerable in themselves.
“However sometimes they confuse that inner connection with a connection with you the performer, and approach you to tell you all about their deep-and-meaningfuls. A sure recipe for awkward and confusing post-performance conversations.
“Of course, I’ve been the awkward audience member, too…”
It can be so difficult to resist putting people on pedestals when we greatly admire their art – and this is even true for those of us who’ve been on both sides of the dynamic and are able to see its limitations very clearly.
“If you do a good performance, then you enable your audience to connect with something vulnerable in themselves.” Yes! That is one of the reasons I write, and it can be applied to all the arts. If I’ve done my work well – if I’ve been faithful to my artistic vision and written what is actually in me to write, rather than what an empty pocketbook or social approval dictates – then my readers have the opportunity to see parts of themselves through the lens of my written work. I will endeavour to be as patient and understanding as possible whenever readers confuse that inner connection with a connection to me, the writer and performer, and I will be mindful to keep my own fan mystique in check when I notice that I am making the same error with the artists whose work I admire.
Last November I made a post in which I compiled a list with links to 13 dark ambient tracks that have inspired my devotional and ritual dance choreography, with brief comments on each one. That post has drawn quite a bit of interest – I get a lot of hits from people searching on phrases such as “dark ambient blog” – and of course dark ambient music plays a central role in the work I do at the Hermitage, so I’ve decided to turn these posts into a series. Here are 13 more of my favourite dark ambient tracks for ritual and dance.
1) Vestigial – Last Extinction Prayer
I have heard dark ambient music aptly described as “the soundtrack for my inward eyes.” No doubt about it: successfully crafted dark ambient music facilitates inner journeys. Dancing to music like this also helps me give expression to a deep sense of grief about the state of the Earth, and it helps me confront and deal with the emotions associated with other unsettling realities that lurk within the dark disowned heart of modern post-industrial culture. This cold and apocalyptic track from Peppe Ferrillo’s project Vestigial captures this emotional juxtaposition of modern life perfectly, provoking listeners to stare unflinchingly into the heart of darkness – their own, and that of the culture in which they live.
The Ukrainian label Old Captain recently collaborated with Cyclic Law to re-release the Aeon and Solar albums from Vestigial, which delights me because I think Vestigial is an amazing project and his music richly deserves to be more widely appreciated.
2) Penjaga Insaf – Sama Sadja
This track, Sama Sadja (translation: “together alone”), features an irresistible fusion of ominous field recordings made during travels in Indonesia, including ritualistic bells, vocal chanting, mesmerising synth drones, and thick pulsating rhythms. A project of Ingo Sauerbrey with Henry Emich of Herbst9. Absolutely brilliant.
3) Claustrum – Penitential
From Rīga, Latvia comes this gloriously sorrowful piece of music – one of the most beautifully mournful dark ambient tracks ever.
4) Abandoned Shelter – Chant of Death
A haunting, atmospheric dark ritual ambient track from an obscure Bulgarian project, which was terminated in 2008. (I have not been able to track down any information online about the musician responsible.)
5) raison d’être – Metamorphyses Phase I
Deep and cavernous. This is dark meditation and trance music for cave-dwelling mystics, composed by Peter Andersson, one of the best-known and most prolific musicians in the dark ambient genre. This track is the opener on the 2006 album “Metamorphyses,” released on the Cold Meat Industry label. Like most dark ambient, I think it is best enjoyed in a darkened room, with ritual elements such as candles and incense to enhance the atmosphere.
6) Troum & All Sides – Shutûn (extract)
The beauty of this track moves me so deeply that I struggle to find words to express what it means to me. The full track is an hour long, but this ten-minute excerpt is my favourite. It gives me chills and moves me to dance every single time, no matter how often I hear it. Featuring the amazing Nina Kernicke, who also performs as Allseits – her brilliant album Hel is not-to-be-missed.
(Have I mentioned that I love this track?)
7) Herbst9 – Ereškigal, Rise From Your Throne
A monumental track in honour of the dark goddess Ereškigal from the brilliant German dark ritual ambient project Herbst9, a.k.a. Frank Merten and Henry Emich. This track is from their 2011 album Ušumgal Kalamma, meaning “Dragon of the Land.” Like all their music, it is intensely mystical and evocative of ancient and primal forces.
Here’s an apt description of their music from their last.fm profile: “H9’s music is the darkness from the deep and hidden places of the world made substantial, the inhalations and exhalations of the very earth beneath our feet, and the steam and bile of nature’s eruptions.”
8) Skadi – Terra Innocentia
From my Dark Pagan Monastic playlist comes this enigmatic track from my favourite dark ambient musician of all, Alexander Leßwing of Skadi. The album this is taken from, “Eliwagar,” is a masterpiece. I discovered it in 2006, and I’ve been dancing to it ever since.
9) Peter Bjärgö – Withdrawal
From my Solitude and Silence playlist: A beautiful neoclassical track that inspires me to translate the emotional landscape of my introversion into the language of ritual dance.
I’m drawn into silence
I’m drawn back inside
‘Cause silence means safety
So I crawl back inside...
10) Predominance – Aurora Borealis
A dark ambient musical performance with accompanying visuals at a planetarium? Why, yes. More like this, please! I think dark ambient music lends itself perfectly to a live performance environment like this. Attendees can focus their full attention completely on the music and visuals, rather than being distracted by a typical nightclub environment.
Video cannot capture the magic and grandeur of a live performance, of course, especially not in a space like a planetarium. But watching this video nonetheless inspires me to consider possible ways to create a similarly immersive and meditative experience with dark ambient music, video, and visual art – albeit on a much smaller scale – at the Hermitage. Creating the appropriate atmosphere requires careful attention to detail. From the moment the visitor approaches the Hermitage and walks in the door, everything should convey the right vibe and aesthetic.
11) Svartsinn – As A Black Stone Monument (New Risen Throne Mix)
I love the deep cold Nordic winter feel of this track. It’s a perfect accompaniment for my devotional dances for Skaði on a snowy January evening at the Hermitage…and of course the name of the track, “As a Black Stone Monument,” is appropriate as well. I dance to both the original version and this remix.
12) Havan – Yajna (excerpt)
Hauntingly beautiful, otherworldly excerpt from a remarkable 30-minute track. Havan is a new project from Frederic Arbour of Cyclic Law, joined by Harlow MacFarlane of Funerary Call and Sarah Rosalina Brady of Amber Asylum.
From a review by Peter N. Marks:
“This must have been pulled out of the deepest, darkest depths of the Earth. Below the crust, beneath the mantle…The tone is one of overpowering ritual, light some candles and go on your own journey…Close your eyes and let the inky, enveloping smoke rise from Yajna… Become one with the darkness, breathe it in and through it find your way to a truer understanding of the world around us.”
(Intriguingly, the Discogs entry for this album says it was edited at “The Black Loft.” Sounds like a place I’d feel right at home…)
13) Arktau Eos – Otherstone Refraction
I think this is my favourite Arktau Eos track of all. One of the reasons I’m drawn to the work of this Finnish duo is that their approach to making music is similar to my own approach to dance: it is more focused on ritual, catharsis, and channeling the sacred than it is on entertainment and flawless technique. As they put it:
“ARKTAU EOS firmly believe in the power of music as much more than entertainment, given that it is nurtured in a proper environment and treated as sacred, with a focused, serious spiritual intent. To this end, ARKTAU EOS work meticulously in the confines of their special temple-laboratory, an analog studio built by A.I.H., and employ field recordings and snapshots of unheralded apparitions in the mix…A right “vibe” always takes precedence over technical proficiency. Importance is also placed on other mediums of art, such as statuary, draperies, paintings, etc., either created by the group or acquired by fortuitous chance from various strange places on Earth, which equally channel the desired presence into the music.”
Hope you enjoy these great tracks as much as I do! Stay tuned for Volume III.
In the Grove of the Temple of Isis – John William Godward (1915)
Today, for the first time, I posted a short improvisational video clip from my Shrine of Skaði dance practice to the Facebook page associated with this blog. Since I’m not a performer – and in fact am an extreme introvert who has never enjoyed drawing attention to herself – it took quite awhile before I could muster up the courage to post it, and even then I only did so because I was, uhhhh…”nudged” to do it by Those I serve, and also encouraged by people whose work I respect and whose opinions I trust. The video was made in early 2012, and it took me until now to get myself to a point where I could put it out there in public.
I received some lovely and encouraging feedback on the video from artists I respect, including an expression of interest in having me perform (!!!) from the organiser of Raqs Oubliettes (Portland’s dark bellydance showcase for ritual, esoterica, and mystique), some encouraging words of approval from Pagan artist Maxine Miller, “this is gorgeous!” from Arrowyn Craban Lauer of Hex Magazine, and a comment from music journalist and fellow dark ambient fan Lysander of Heathen Harvest that almost left me speechless – “Cyclic Law should take you on.” (Cyclic Law has long been my favourite label, and much of my writing and dance is inspired by their artists and musicians, so that really made my day. Especially since this was just a casual practice video, made for purposes of self-critique and improvement – not for self-promotion.)
But even if there had been no response at all, or a strong critical response, I would have dealt with it as…well, just part of the package. No matter what I do in my creative life, there will always be some people who like it and others who dislike it, and most will be indifferent. Whether I receive positive feedback, negative feedback, or no feedback at all, I just keep reminding myself…this is not about me and my ego. It will never be about me and my ego. Sure, it’s always nice to receive encouraging feedback – obviously my ego totally eats that stuff up, at least until I get lost in ruminations about whether or not this will be considered “humblebragging” (which is also ego-driven) – but all of my work is done to honour the gods and spirits and serve my community in accordance with Their will. I hone my arts and crafts – writing, dance, shrine-building, and home decorating – so that I can use these skills in service of divine Will. That is why I do this. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
(If you’d like to see the video, please visit the Facebook page. I can’t embed videos with this account.)
[This is a very personal piece of writing on grief that I posted to my Facebook friends quite awhile ago. It met with heartfelt appreciation, and I was encouraged to post it publicly someday, if I ever felt ready to do so. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me and supported me when I needed it so desperately. Here it is – I’m ready. Like a phoenix from the ashes.]
April 17th, 2012, marked the 5-year anniversary of the day my ex informed me that our 14-year relationship was over and it was time for me to leave.
On that date in 2007, I learned that for several months he had been carrying on a clandestine online affair in an MMORPG, with a married woman he’d never met who had five children and lived on the other side of the country. The two of them were in love, they had decided to leave their respective spouses for each other, and he wanted me out.
Within a month, I had moved back to Portland and was living alone, heartbroken and crushed.
I knew I would never see him again. We would not be friends. I don’t know how I knew this. I resisted that knowledge, even as I was certain of it. It definitely wasn’t what I wanted. Sure, we’d had our problems, but I once loved that man with every fiber of my being. I would have stepped in front of a speeding bullet for him without a moment’s hesitation. Still, I knew.
It is surprising how quick some people have been to pass judgment on how I coped with the aftermath of this loss. To the sanctimonious people who do this – and it always seems to be the ones who have not been through an unwanted divorce or breakup of a cherished long-term relationship – I have this to say:
You have no idea how painful it is to be betrayed, deceived, and abandoned by your beloved – someone you deeply adored, lived with, gave your heart to, trusted, respected, and wanted by your side until death, despite his flaws. You may think you know what that kind of loss must be like if you’ve read a book about it or watched a friend go through it, but unless you’ve actually been through it yourself, no, you do not. And even if you’ve been there yourself, you still only know your experience of it, which is filtered through your own specific combination of cognitive and cultural biases.
If you dismiss people in this situation – or, say, people who post about it at length, five years after the fact – as drama queens or whiners who like to wallow in negativity for the sake of attention, I suggest you try harder to get a clue, because YOU DON’T FUCKING GET IT. Quit it with the “first world problems” bullshit already.
Unwanted divorce is anguish, and I do not use this word lightly. It scars people for life. In my case – for complex reasons I still do not completely understand – I lost not only my ex, but an entire social circle dating back to my early university days. We had once called one another our chosen family. I lost my dream house – the one where I had once aspired to work in my home office as a freelance writer, start a mini-ecovillage, build a tiny private gothic/industrial bellydance studio and Pagan temple, and celebrate my 40th birthday. I ended up spending my 40th birthday alone, eating chocolate and sobbing.
My ex deliberately deceived me and absconded with my half of the funds from the sale of our house (over $50,000). He got away with it only because I had foolishly allowed the title to be issued in his name only, and, to this very day, I still can’t afford to pursue him for his debt to me according to the terms of the arbitration contract we signed. Believe me, I tried. Soon the statute of limitations will expire anyway, so I have no choice but to take the hit.
I come from a comfortable white middle class background, with parents who were professionals and stressed the value of education. My ex was a software engineer in the computer games industry; I was an honour student with grad school aspirations in philosophy and psychology, and I have completed three baccalaureate-level academic degrees. I’ve worked as a teaching assistant, a computer lab web design assistant, and an office manager, among other things. I’m obsessively organised, business-savvy, computer-savvy, and very much a “planner” – I was pretty confident that I was prepared to handle most of life’s slings and arrows. Now I’m living out the story of the times: the bottom is falling out of the middle class, and many of us are hanging on by a thread that is rapidly unraveling. Before the divorce, my ex and I were doing fairly well, and were on our way to early retirement. We had investments, many of which I managed conservatively. Then the one-two punch was delivered: he left, and two years later I graduated, with my accounting post-bac certificate, right smack into the worst recession since the Great Depression. Oops! Bad timing! No job for you!
Now, despite my skills, investment savvy, frugal habits, education, and work experience, I’m barely scraping by. I would prefer to support myself solely by writing the non-fiction books that are sloshing around in me, waiting for me to get my life arranged so they can be properly written. I have several well-developed book outlines, and a small but loyal following of readers. I believe I am competent enough as a writer and a business person to get there. With my safety net mostly gone, however, I’m not optimistic about being able to pull this off. Books can take years to write, and it takes the cooperative efforts of many people to get them professionally published. If it weren’t for my family, I’d be in real trouble. I’ve been juggling job-hunting, volunteer work, and freelance gigs for three years now, while simultaneously trying to finish my first book manuscript (currently at 60,000 words) and get up to speed on electronic publishing so that I can eventually edit and publish my back catalogue of 20+ years’ worth of written work in e-book form. I live on food stamps, a few subcontract writing gigs, the occasional tip-jar donation from my blog readers, and some family gifts. Fortunately, I am debt-free and frugal by nature, so I’m able to live on very little income.
Oh, and when my ex left, my health insurance went right along with him. In case you hadn’t heard, in the USA we are only considered worthy of receiving dignified, affordable health care if we are married to, or employed by, someone with a good insurance plan. Thank gods I’ve been relatively healthy for the past few years. Since my financial assets are gone now, I’m eligible for the Oregon Health Plan, but the state doesn’t have enough funds for all who need coverage, so I have been on the waiting list for two and a half years. (My ex is working at MIT, last I heard. He won’t speak to me or answer e-mails.) So I live every single day with the constant threat of being unable to pay for any medical care I might need, and the ever-present possibility that because I’m uninsured, I won’t be able to get medical care at all.
Relationships end for a thicket of tangled reasons that even the partners themselves may not fully understand. I made my share of mistakes in that relationship, and no doubt my ex told a few stories of his own. Nonetheless, I dealt with him in good faith even after he threw in the towel and took up with someone else, and I didn’t deserve what he did. When he e-mailed me to tell me he was running off with all the money from our house, he wrote to me, and I quote: “This e-mail will vilify whatever is left of your opinion of me.” Even his parents thought what he did was wrong, and as I understand it, they tried to convince him to at least settle his debt to me fairly. He didn’t listen.
I’m a non-fiction writer. I’m not very good at writing fiction. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
I was a wreck. My grief triggered a relapse of my clinical depression, and I had to go back on medication after years of being medication-free and in remission. My sense of self fractured. My self-image had been filtered, in part, through a lens coloured by 14 years of his daily influence for better and worse. Suddenly that influence vanished, and I had to sort out what remained. My hard-won self-confidence took a nosedive right into the gutter, and my formerly feisty passion became foggy and dulled. My social anxiety, which had previously been very mild and easily manageable, spiked into danger zones. I cycled so rapidly and unpredictably from one emotional state to another that I frightened myself. I feared that no one I’d want to date would ever find the nerdy, broken, lonely, desperately needy middle-aged version of me attractive ever again.
Worse still, my ability to take joy in solitude was smothered, and it terrified me to think that I might never get that mojo back. As an introvert, I cherish solitude, and I take great care to distinguish it from loneliness. Solitude nourishes my creativity; loneliness erodes it. There is a complex and sometimes paradoxical relationship between intimacy and solitude, and broken bonds of attachment shredded into mere scraps the fabric I had woven together so painstakingly.
For almost a year after my ex left, a “good” day was one in which I could endure three or four consecutive hours without a single suicidal thought. There were countless days when I thought about suicide every five or ten minutes. I sobbed openly – I discovered, to my chagrin, that I was physically incapable of stopping myself – while strangers stared as I stood in line at the bank. I curled up into a fetal position on the floor of my studio flat because the crushing sensation in my chest made me suspect a heart attack. I hoped fervently that I wouldn’t survive it. I’d had no idea that emotional pain could be so undeniably physical, and could make me want to die so thoroughly and viscerally. And don’t even get me started on the white-hot rage. If you met me during this dark time in my life, your first impressions of me were probably not very positive, as I was but a pale shadow of myself.
But I DID survive it. I’m still here. Somehow I fucking muddled my way through. I’m justifiably proud of that fact alone. Do not try to use shaming phrases like “first world problems” to take me down a notch or convince me that I have no right to my feelings about this just because others have suffered worse fates than I.
I’ve even gone on to make new friends and find happiness. And with hindsight, it’s clear that I am better off without him in all ways except financially. But I will bear scars from that loss for life. It shaped the person I have become in fundamental ways. It changed me into a different kind of person – someone I am still getting to know, in fact.
Now then…here’s some hard-won advice. (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?)
People who have been through a loss of this magnitude are likely to be in near-constant, inescapable pain for a long, long time – much longer than you may think is reasonable. The damage sustained may not be obvious, because in our culture we expect people to stuff down their pain, paste on a faux-happy face, and carry on with business as usual, and there are few or no safe places for people who are hurting to let down their guard. We even add insult to injury by mocking them: “Oh, boo fucking hoo, your boyfriend broke up with you. Talk to someone who has REAL problems.”
People who are suffering like this do not need your thinly veiled pressure – no matter how well-intentioned – to move on or “get over it.” What they DO need – often more desperately than they even know themselves – is your support, love, and patience. They may not always be able to ask for it, however, for a whole host of reasons. For one thing, they fear (often accurately!) that even the people who care about them won’t want to “go there” with them, and won’t be able to handle the intensity of their pain without inflicting further damage, however unintentional. If you want to be a real friend, then reach out to them, if you can do so respectfully, while taking into account any boundaries they may have. Don’t try to fix it. It’s going to fucking hurt no matter what you do. Grief has its own inconvenient timetable, and you cannot opt out. Yes, you can try – gods know I did – but it will catch up with you sooner or later. Unfinished grief lives on in our cells. Just be there, and allow it to run its course.
Don’t offer advice unless asked, and in general, try to think before you speak. Platitudes can be even worse, so skip the New Age crap. It’s often better to say nothing at all, even if it feels awkward, than it is to say something well-intentioned but potentially hurtful. Offer lots of hugs, though – real ones in the flesh, if you can, not the cheap Internet substitute. Let them know you care and are thinking about them. Write them heartfelt letters. Ask if they could use your help getting gigs or a job. Stand in bank lines with them. If they’re up for it, give them a chance to help YOU – this can sometimes help to distract them from their own pain and allow them to feel useful, and this can be a win-win arrangement for both parties. Be gentle if something happens to trigger them and they lose it in public. Take them out for tea or lunch. Participate in cathartic rituals with them, if you are so inclined. There are very few acceptable places for rituals of profound grief and loss in our emotionally stunted culture, so offer to help them find or create one if that’s what they so desire. Call them, if they enjoy talking on the phone. Offer to grocery shop and cook for them, and do the dishes too. Sit beside them and listen to depressing music together in companionable silence. Hand them tissues patiently while they weep, scream, rant, and rage – and when they’re done (for the moment, that is; expect more waves of grief to come later) let them know you still love them and have faith in their ability to survive this.
One of the most healing gifts you can give to the people you hold dear is to just be there in the dark moments when they need you, and bear loving witness to their grief and pain. Give them your full presence and attention when you can, without trying to smooth over or fix things. By no means is this an easy thing to do – I mean, who wants to watch people they love suffer? But if you can develop the strength and skills necessary to do it, you may be able to help them cope, and the quality of your relationship with them may be much improved.
And finally, don’t be so quick to pass judgment on others when you don’t know the half of it. Even after reading this, or hearing me tell the story verbally, you still don’t know the half of it. Everything I have written here is truthful, and it is a faithful account of my experience. Yet you can’t ever know all of what “really happened”. Even I can’t know that. All I know is my own view of it.
Thank you for listening.