Sunday Brunch: Processing the Unimaginable

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable

My adopted city, Dallas, is mourning, and hot tears leak from my eyes at random moments. My heart is still sore from the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando last month. My friends – gay, straight, cis, trans, black, brown, white, male, female, liberal, conservative, and those who fall into their own positions on a multitude of spectra – are all facing their own bouts of heartsickness, reacting either to events that hurt our communities, or other, more personal losses.

The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down

We turn to social media for information, for solace, for the sense that even if we are geographically separate from the people we most love, the digital world keeps us together.

And learn to live with the unimaginable

And we are overwhelmed.

Or at least, I am.

It’s easy enough to switch the channel away from CNN or the local news, to turn off cable entirely, and step into the reality-free bubble of endless streaming episodes of “comfort television.” (For me, that involves Gilmore Girls, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and even, though some might think it odd, The West Wing.) Lone Sad Guitarist

Much more difficult is disconnecting from the internet. I live so much of my life online that ignoring email is like ignoring a ringing phone, and taking a step back from Twitter or Facebook is tantamount to taking up residence in a cave in the wilderness.

But there are times when taking a break is the best thing, the only thing, I can do if I want to retain any semblance of sanity (and believe me, I use that term loosely).

And it’s then that I turn to music.

If my life was a movie, it would be a musical. I was singing before I could talk, and I often tell people that I think in music. More accurately, I think in songs.

My tastes are many, even eclectic, and my inner soundtrack varies often. Sometimes I blast classic rock, and other times, I find the greatest release in classical music.

Several years ago, when my nephew was dying, I listened to Melissa Etheridge’s cover of “Hallelujah,” Bette Midler’s version of “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” and the gospel choir rendition of the Beatles’ “Let it Be.” A couple of decades before that, I got through the days after my grandfather’s funeral with endless repeats of Barbara Streisand singing “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”

I don’t pretend to know
The challenges we’re facing
I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost

I turn to folk music and showtunes more than any other kind of music. I like them because they have the strongest stories, because they have accessible melodies and (usually) discernible lyrics, and because when it hurts too much to be myself, they give me characters to play, even if it’s only for three minutes and fourteen seconds.

I fill my head with music. I stand in the living room and sing. I dance with my dogs (Teddy is tall enough to be a partner, but he’s not good at leading).

I remember random snippets of things that matter – like Noel Paul Stookey (the ‘Paul’ in Peter, Paul & Mary) suggesting to a concert audience that all candidates for public office should be required to sing for their constituents, because while all adults are adept at lying when we speak, it’s almost impossible to lie while singing.

I watch as celebrity after celebrity releases a tribute song.

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is a grace too powerful to name
We push away what we can never understand
We push away the unimaginable

I used to mock those celebrity tribute songs.

Now, I listen to them, and if I really like them, I buy them. Why? Because celebrities are just people. They’re ordinary people with extraordinary jobs, and writing a song, or joining a chorus of other celebrity singers is really no different than what I do in my living room, except on a grander scale with the potential to also earn money for a designated charity.

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

The tears continue to flow as I listen to the song that’s helping me most right now. “It’s Quiet Uptown,” from the soundtrack of Hamilton. While it’s technically about Alexander and Eliza reeling from the death of their son, there’s a universality in the emotions of the song, and in the concept of pushing through the worst grief, accepting that the unimaginable happens, and coming, finally to a place of forgiveness and understanding.

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

I’m not quite ready to interact with the world yet. I haven’t sorted out all of my own feelings about the last few days, and my emotions are raw and too close to the surface.

I do know, though, that we have to – all of us – as Americans, as humans – find a way to come together and move forward and make positive change.

Maybe we’ll do that with laws and policies, but maybe, just maybe, we’ll do that with art, and writing, and music.

Peter, Paul & Mary sang that music was “… better than words. It’s the only thing that the whole world listens to.”  I believe they were right.

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

Whether it’s angry-girl rock that helps us find our inner strength, a lullaby sung to a fretful or fearful child, or a silly pop number that helps us rediscover joy, even in the midst of sorrow, music is the language that lives in our deepest hearts.

Plug in those ear-buds or turn up that stereo. Choose vintage vinyl or stick with the modern technology that lets us hold entire catalogues of albums in the palms of our hands. Find the song that works for you, and play it on auto-repeat or pick it out on a piano or guitar. Sing in the streets or sing in the shower.

That’s what I’m doing.

At least for now.

If I’m quiet, if I don’t write strings of words about what’s going on in the world, but re-post the writings of a few other voices I resonate with, please understand that I’m still processing the unimaginable events that have hurt my community, my friends, and me.

Most likely, everyone else around me is doing the same.

Have pity
They are going through the unimaginable


Italicized song lyrics are from “It’s Quiet Uptown,” from Hamilton: An American Musicalmusic and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Image Copyright: joseasreyes / 123RF Stock Photo


About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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