The mix tape

I recently finished Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield. The book is a memoir about the author's love of music, the courtship and marriage to his wife Renee, and the aftermath of her all-too-sudden death after five years of marriage. The author is a music critic, so music plays an even larger part of his life than most people. Like many of us, he has created mix tapes over the years. As he describes it:
"I have built my entire life around loving music, and I surround myself with it. I’m always racing to catch up on my next favorite song. But I never stop playing my mixes. Every fan makes them. The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with – nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they add up to the story of a life."
In the book, his mix tapes transport himself (and the reader) to certain times in his life. The songs on the mix tapes trigger memories and help him tell his story. The portions of the book after his wife died are particularly wrenching, as he comes to terms with his wife dying suddenly of a pulmonary embolism, and his experience as a widower when he is still in his early 30's. A song brought he and his wife together, and music was almost a third character in their relationship. The mix tapes keep him connected on an intimate level to his wife, and they are a place to store his memories.

Like the author, I made a bunch of mix tapes when I was younger. I still make the occasional mix, but of course the tape has been replaced by a an iPod playlist or burned CD. Some mixes were just a series of songs that grabbed me in the moment, while others had themes that tied the songs together. One tape was a bit of an autobiography, and I have also made mixes after each relationship breakup. I am almost ready to create one for my marriage to J.

Over the last year and a half, music has been one of those things that would sneak up on me when I wasn't looking, and could either make me feel wistful or knock me flat on the pavement. One low point was losing it in the frozen foods aisle of Safeway to a song playing on the Muzak. The song isn't even worth mentioning, but it hit me just right (or wrong) at the moment.

It sometimes amazes me how many songs there are that I have heard many times, but never really meant anything until my marriage was falling apart. I suppose it is like anything else - you don't notice details until you are looking for them. Like when you decide on a car you want to buy, and suddenly they are everywhere. And of course a love song means more when you are in love, a painful song when you are in pain. When I would either notice or be hit upside the head with a song, I would tuck it away for the future mix tape.

It seems there is a certain waiting period before I am ready to put it together, and a bit longer one until I am ready to pop it in the stereo. It seems like listening to these songs would be a recipe for misery. I can't exactly explain why it is important to make the mix tape, but it is. I guess there are times when I just want to open my arms wide and embrace the memories, and any pain that comes along with them. Maybe by choosing the moment, I feel more in control of when I am going to feel low. And maybe by listening to the songs in succession, they lose a bit of their power. Maybe I am less likely to be knocked sideways in the frozen food aisle.

Anyway, there are a couple of songs that will definitely be in the mix. Two of them seem to capture the dialogue (spoken and unspoken) between J and I as our marriage was ending. I would sing "More Time" by NeedtoBreathe, and she would respond with "Where I Stood" by Missy Higgins.

More Time
I promised you the world again
Everything within my hands
All the riches one could dream
They will come from me

I hoped that you could understand
That this is not what I had planned
Please don’t worry now
It will turn around

Cause I need more time
Just a few more months and we’ll be fine
So say what’s on your mind
Cause I can’t figure out just what’s inside

So say alright
Cause I know we can make it if we try
Cause I need more time
Just a few more months and we’ll be fine

We’re off to new lands
So hold on to my hands
It’s gonna be alright.
It’s a whole lot brighter
So stand by the fire
It’s gonna be alright.
Yeah, the road gets harder
But it’s not much farther
It’s gonna be alright.
You know that it ain’t easy
Please believe me
It’s gonna be alright.

Where I Stood
I don't know what I've done
Or if I like what I've begun
But something told me to run
And honey you know me it's all or none

There were sounds in my head
Little voices whispering
That I should go and this should end
Oh and I found myself listening

'Cos I dont know who I am, who I am without you
All I know is that I should
And I don't know if I could stand another hand upon you
All I know is that I should
'Cos she will love you more than I could
She who dares to stand where I stood

See I thought love was black and white
That it was wrong or it was right
But you ain't leaving without a fight
And I think I am just as torn inside

'Cos I dont know who I am, who I am without you
All I know is that I should
And I don't know if I could stand another hand upon you
All I know is that I should
'Cos she will love you more than I could
She who dares to stand where I stood

And I won't be far from where you are if ever you should call
You meant more to me than anyone I ever loved at all
But you taught me how to trust myself and so I say to you
This is what I have to do


"If hate were people, I'd be China!"
~ Phil, delivering the last line in an argument with his wife, from the movie City Slickers.

Some quotes resonate with you because they describe how you feel, so well, with such brevity. Others seem to grab me because they are comically absurd. The above one falls into the second category, but it still has some resonance when this mild-mannered character snaps.

The simplified, five step path through grief is often quoted. They are:
  • Denial and Isolation 
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance 
I certainly haven't followed them in any order, and a few people in my life have encouraged me to get angry with J. Our marriage counselor wanted me in that stage after only a couple of weeks of counseling. As I have mentioned, it is not really in my nature, and I wasn't convinced that anger was a necessary step in my recovery. But now I feel myself moving into that stage.

I am moving beyond just feeling ripped off and cheated, and some anger is starting to creep into my voice when I talk about the divorce. I am angry that she held back resentments and complaints for two years before bringing a few of them to light. I am frustrated that she told only part of the story, enough to feel like she was being open, but not enough to really explain anything.

I have come to the point where I still carry my share of blame and regret for the state of our marriage. But I am not willing to take the blame for the divorce anymore. I put my heart and mental health on the line to try and work things out with J. Nothing that came up seemed insurmountable. Quite frankly, nothing that came up seemed all that difficult to make right. But she seemed to think it was too late to work on our relationship or save our marriage. I did not give up, even after it was pretty clear that she had.

It is sometimes said that it is a thin line between love and hate. The truth behind the phrase is that the passion that once supported love, can now fuel the anger, leading to hate. But I am not even close to hating her, and I don't ever intend to cross that line. In all her hidden feelings, avoidance of conflict, and fumbling prolonging of the end, I believe part of it was out of love for me.

I don't feel much better having moved into the anger stage, but it does feel different. I've read anger can be a first step in gaining emotional distance from your former spouse. It is certainly just a piece of the puzzle and not the solution, but I am starting to believe that (appropriate) anger may be constructive. I suppose that in becoming angry about what has happened, rather than just being depressed or disheartened, you find a bit of strength and self-worth.

The feelings of anger are not particularly hot, and they do not linger. Still, it is a phase I don't want to spend much time in.