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Things suck for me right now. They have sucked for me for such a long time. I am so sick and tired of trying to look on the bright side. I am so sick and tired of waiting for things to get better. I am so sick and utterly weary of having no actual friends. I know I am difficult, but during my brighter moments, this is what I believe makes me beautiful. Why can’t anyone else see me shine?
I am so sick of not being anyone’s favorite, anyone’s exception to the rule. I am so sick of being a fly on the wall. I am so sick of getting no more than I can finagle. I deserve SOMETHING.
I am so sick of being misunderstood. I am so sick of being taken for female: not funny, not witty, not kind or gentle enough to matter.
I am so sick of being in the majority. I blend right in and round out the herd.
I am so sick of not being heard when I choose to speak, which I choose to do only when I want to be heard.
I am so sick of being a novice. Why listen to my opinion? Why act on my thoughts? Why consider me more than a placeholder?
I am so sick of being indigent.
I am so sick of being told skewed perceptions of reality.
I am so hideously sick of having to swear to be taken seriously.
I can’t do this anymore. I am so sick of this. I have no idea how to reach for something else, something that will give me more. I’m so stuck. I am so sick of being stranded here without a kindred spirit to condole.
I’m hurting. It hurts to be alone in this way.
I’m a kindred spirit, and I sympathize with where you are. I know how it is to feel isolated and lonely. One of the traps of feeling lonely is that you get to this place where you’re aware of your isolation and you’re aware of how badly you connect with other people, but you’re too aware to fix it. Your awareness isolates you even more. You can see the looks on other people’s faces. You know how people react to you. You can’t just go with the flow. And as long as you’re so painfully aware of how you don’t fit in, you won’t fit in.
Because I’m old, I will now quote a band called Yes that was embraced by smart stoners in the olden days. You might know Yes from their 1983 hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” but that song is not typical of their oeuvre. Yes was math rock meets emo meets Lord of the Rings grandiosity. Their songs were very orchestral but also faintly jammy, almost like a higher-end, British version of the Dead (which is probably an insult to both the Dead and Yes). The members of Yes were serious musicians, though, the kinds of musicians who believe in alternative tunings and Lydian dominant scales and riffs so complicated that you need a degree in higher math just to unpack them. Looking back, I think Yes was music for highly sensitive smarties plagued by heavy feels. Yes had all of the melodrama of Zeppelin, but instead of singing about tricking little girls into squeezing your disgusting lemon or offering up a piece of their cherished custard pie (Jesus, keep it in your filthy pants for once, Zeppelin), Yes sang about seasons passing you by and instant karma and “Oh, coins and crosses never know their fruitless worth!”
All of this will sound like a digression to you, of course, but bear with me. Because digressions are what you need right now: focusing on something that has nothing to do with who you are, how lonely you are, how tired you are of looking on the bright side. Because looking on the bright side is impossible when you feel as bad as you do now. You can’t perk up and be more optimistic. What you can do is simply look away from yourself. Or, as Yes put it, “Don’t surround yourself with yourself.”
These words spring into my mind often. I didn’t know what they meant when I was younger and listened to Yes, partially because I was not just surrounded by myself, I was also full of myself. I was covered in myself and clothed in myself and swimming through a sea myself only to get to an island of myself, alone on a planet of myself, spinning through a universe of myself.
No one could reach me, even if they wanted to. Because in trying to feel less alone, in trying to solve my problems, I would inevitably wind up in a wrestling match with myself, cheered on and jeered at by myself, breathing in myself. I believed that the only way to tackle myself was by confronting and facing and examining and arguing with myself.
Becoming whole is about understanding yourself, sure. But equally important (if not more important) is the part where you let go of yourself. You clear yourself out of the way. You push yourself to the side and look closely at something else, ANYTHING ELSE.
Today, as an exercise, we’re going to watch this ancient reel of Yes in concert from 1975. Because this is something as far outside of you surrounded by you as it could possibly be. I don’t expect you to enjoy this. Listening will feel like work. That’s the point!
Where do we even begin, right? Who starts a song with a four-minute long guitar solo, first of all? And look at that stage design. Is this a local dinner-theater production of Shrek: The Musical! or a major rock tour attended by a massive crowd? Take in the shiny satin prom-dress shirt on guitarist Steve Howe. Take in the notable absence of quality hair-product use. (We didn’t have quality hair products back then. You just poured something like Palmolive on your head and hoped for the best.) Take in the commitment to Peter Pan blouses and flared sleeves. Lead singer Jon Anderson was sort of a timeless hottie, though. He looks like he could be hanging out in a coffee joint in Prospect Heights, smoking weed and reading A Little Life.
I think Anderson always felt like the novice in this group. I mean, what a voice! But look at these other guys with all of their fucking instruments and alternate tunings. How much standing around like an asshole do you think Anderson had to do with these guys around? He had time to visit local gift shops and browse for new super-tight chokers and Robin Hood blouses in between his brief bouts of singing.
Now is probably the time to jump right to 9:20 in the video, where you’ll see Howe playing one guitar while another guitar is strapped to his chest. Think for a minute about the commitment to his craft this guy has. No wonder he’s wearing a satin shirt his mom sewed for him using a McCall pattern. No wonder his hair looks like it hasn’t been cut since sometime around the Tet Offensive. This guy is not surrounding himself with himself. He is surrounding himself with his obsessive, full-body connection to his music. He has a laser focus. He never looks self-conscious. He seems unaware of the crowd. This is what we want for you, Purgatory. You need to find some way to get HERE.
Now, lyrically, we’ve got journeys and voids and seasons passing you by. There’s a real hobbit energy to Yes. If Zeppelin is like Sauron, Yes is the original hobbit, Bilbo Baggins: humble and connected to the rhythms of the seasons, attached to the comforts of daily life. Hobbits farm the land and sweat and toil, and then they drink a giant pint of beer after a long day’s work. It’s not that they can’t be a little neurotic or a little greedy. They are highly suggestible creatures. But as long as they are, you know, sticking their gross, hairy feet in the mud of the Shire …
All right, let’s leave the hobbits out of this and just say that, since you don’t have a farm to till, you need some physical activity every single day. Exercise brings you back to the basic human pleasure that comes from surviving, weathering the hardship of physical exertion and then resting in the accomplishment of that. Instead of torturing yourself every day with what you don’t have, choose to suffer in a new way, one that actually clears your head and makes you feel that, even in your loneliness, you’re taking care of yourself.
Okay, now let’s skip to 11:44. “Two million people barely satisfied.” This feels like a tribute to the slog. There is suffering in the day-to-day. What do you do? You get up, you get down. Sure, most Yes lyrics are refrigerator-magnet mumbo jumbo of the highest order. But there are loose themes here: We’re connected to nature, to the seasons, and to each other. You can’t resist the bad weather; you can’t turn your back on how connected you are to everything and everyone else, because it’ll make you crazy. We all feel the shame of being regular, flawed humans. We are all BARELY satisfied, dig?
The answer is to turn to something outside yourself. Stop thinking, and do what you do without questioning it. That’s not looking on the bright side. That’s understanding that repetitive work, boredom, and slogging along are things that have their eventual rewards. Like the middle chapters of Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, about the narrator’s long lost ancestors — who cares? That’s Stegner’s obsessive love affair with the West talking. Like a Yes-focused digression in an advice column, like an endless guitar solo, you tolerate your impatience just to get to that soaring epiphany of a final chapter. BUT YOU CAN’T SKIP TO THE END OR IT’S NOT AS GOOD. You have to earn it.
12:20: “How old will I be before I come of age for you?” This is where Anderson’s voice starts to sound like crying. I love that cry-face vocal. It’s like your letter, a climactic wail of frustration and sorrow. But the most glorious moments of extreme sorrow will bring you closer to what you love, so lean into them. Keep writing it down. Keep believing that writing it down matters, because it does.
This part of the song is almost like a tribute to the novice. Let go of your ego, accept that you’re invisible, embrace your beginner status for now. You’re not that experienced, right? So fucking what? I feel like a novice every single day. That’s why I write for a living. I LIKE being forced to start from scratch every day. But like you, when I was younger, I hated feeling like a novice, and I hated it when people condescended to me.
It’s hard to tolerate the indignities of being a beginner, before you get really good at what you do. You’re like Luke Skywalker, throwing a temper tantrum every few milliseconds on Dagobah. You resent the self-important so-called “experts” around you: The not-very-impressive keyboard players of the world, with their bad bangs. The dudes with the really high voices who’d rather tool around in boutiques all day than write more refrigerator-magnet poetry lyrics for the new album. You don’t want to be like them when you grow up. You don’t want to sit around on some swampy planet, putting your verbs and your nouns in the wrong order while you wait for the next naïve wannabe-Jedi to come along.
But remember, people who tell you you’re a beginner and you need to shut up and listen are really just expressing their own feelings of powerlessness. Cultivate some sympathy for them. And cultivate some sympathy for yourself, too. This is a tough era for you, but it will pass you by eventually. TRUST.
Use your anger to fuel you, but don’t let it eat you alive. You want to master something! You want a right to have a little swagger! I mean, just look at these guys with their ridiculous sequin sleeves. Seventies rockers were always so sure that everyone cared about the next note, the next song, the next tour. And did you know that Yes is STILL touring? Their bassist, Chris Squire, died this year, but there’s something called the Cruise to the Edge — a Yes-themed cruise! — and it just wrapped a few days ago.
The moral? All truly magical things in this world end in themed cruises. Seasons will pass you by like a motherfucker, in other words. But what can you do? What do you do when your bassist dies and your lead singer develops a chronic respiratory illness? You recruit lead singers from Yes tribute bands. No, I’m not kidding. You get up, you get down.
And, sure, you’ll become a joke to someone somewhere, eventually, just for doing what you love. Someone will say, “Holy shit, why don’t they stop touring?” And someone else will say, “And they’re still recording live albums, too!” How many live albums by Yes does any one human need?
But that’s not the takeaway here. The takeaway is PUT ON YOUR SATIN MCCALL’S PATTERN BLOUSE AND ROCK IT OUT. Find your version of strapping on two guitars, and do that. Don’t be the guy who rigs up the dry-ice machine and then goes home and reads his Twitter feed until bedtime. Don’t be the guy who gets high and plays Guitar Hero all day and then waxes philosophic about how life is nothing but suffering. Don’t be the tribute-band lead singer who gets recruited into the actual band, then gets fired and complains about being a placeholder.
STRAP ON THE TWO GUITARS. Be that guy. Be so focused on your craft that you don’t hear them snickering about your blouse. Be so focused that you don’t mind doing your thing on a cruise ship, if that’s what it takes. Be so focused that you don’t care who sings the refrigerator-magnet lyrics. You are on a journey, Purgatory. You are headed for the misty fucking mountain. Keep your head down and stay the course. There will be orcs and nasty Elven kings who see you as a placeholder along the way. Fuck them.
13:01: This is the sound of putting your circling thoughts aside and reaching for something bigger. Start with your most absurd notions. Follow your most bizarre impulses. Listen to the softest stirrings of your heart. Use your anger. Be patient with yourself. Strap on a second guitar.
Get up. Get down.
Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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