“All Apologies”: Finding the Meaning of Nirvana

The “I’m going to single-handedly save this marriage!” off-switch was pretty hard to find during our final years together.  (Maybe it was hidden under the super-hero cape I thought I was wearing).  My brain just couldn’t last a second, at the end of the marriage, without wondering what new and inventive way I could come up with to fix his unhappiness.  Because he was definitely unhappy; I knew that much.  He told me all the time by criticizing the meals I cooked, the food I bought, the way I cleaned the house, and handled the kids.  The gas I put in the car.  The way I watered the grass.  My ideas.  My existence (probably).  You name it.

I knew that it wasn’t the way I should be treated, so, initially, I stood up for myself.  I’d point out that he had unrealistic expectations and that he talked disrespectfully to me.  For a few months, I even stopped cooking altogether to teach him not to criticize my meals.

But my defiance didn’t last.  Mostly because I’m pathologically easygoing, and it was always so much work for me to fight over these things.   According to my aunt, I’m a Libra with Aquarius moon—in some sort of conjunction or something–which means that, apparently, I am astrologically programmed to be the most “Whatever” kind of person you’ll ever meet.   My view is that life’s just too freaking short to hold onto slights and grudges.   But, unfortunately, that’s exactly what I needed to be able to do in order to see that a pattern was emerging.  A pattern of “he’s a verbally abusive, control freak.”

I also had another strike against me in that I was pathologically afraid of ending up like my parents–divorced, and perpetually angry.

So, at some random point, I must have “Whatever”-ed myself into giving up the fight for equality in my marriage, and, after that point, my whole focus turned into keeping him happy.   I listened to his complaints and tried to be “better.”  I became a different “me,” who supplicated for mercy and gave up her needs for the greater good, in which—somehow–his happiness became the “greatest good” I could think of.   I was rolling over like a dog and peeing all over myself to please him.  Which is a pretty strong tactic.  Since groveling is so attractive and all.    I did what I could do to change myself—insidiously—until finally the inevitable happened and he left to be unhappy somewhere else.

At the end, though, I was gasping for freedom from the thankless, impossible task I’d assigned myself, and an event from February 2007—right before he first mentioned the “D” word—has become emblematic of the near death experience I was assuredly headed for had the marriage continued.

It went like this:   my Dyson vacuum had pulled up some of the new Berber carpet that had just been installed in our remodeled basement.  I knew he would blame me, if he could, so I called the carpet place—in a panic—to tell them what had happened, and see if I had recourse (you know: to see if I could blame someone else).  I didn’t, because apparently you aren’t supposed to use rotating Dyson brushes on this carpeting; it was in the Dyson manual.  I told her that my husband was going to be so mad at me, and she was very apologetic and wished me luck before we hung up.  Thinking quickly, I grabbed my hot glue gun, gathered the pulled up strands of carpeting and tried to jimmy the carpet back into place.  It was near the futon, so he might not even notice.

A few minutes into my job, the carpet place called back.  I was in a hurry to finish the repair job before he got home—burning myself with the hot glue as I used a bamboo skewer to push the carpeting back into place–but I answered anyways.  It was the same woman, who sounded concerned and asked, “I just wanted to call back and make sure you were okay.”  It was weird to hear the worry in her voice, reflecting back to me the panic that had inflected my own.  Like a banner saying, “Game over, sweetie.  Hang up the cape.”

Which—I gotta say—was such a damned relief.   ‘Cause it was such a tiring charade.


   Click for audio sample:           


                                          What else should I be,

                                          All apologies

This Nirvana song–All Apologies–reminds me of “it all.”  My marriage, and it’s suffocation.  My divorce, and the resultant tailspin.  But I’m not sure why.  I don’t even know what the famously-vague lyrics mean; they might seem obvious but their author–Kurt Cobain–was a complex guy and “obvious” wasn’t his thing.   I only know that every time I hear them—and see those words “All Apologies”–I think about the last few years, and my dedicated and regular probing of my marriage to test it for doneness.

                                       I take all the blame,                                                   

                                        aqua seafoam shame.

It was Nirvana’s song–soft, with chords leading to reflective thought, and orchestral strings juxtaposing against roughed-up vocals–but Kurt Cobain’s lyrics.  And no one can say what the lyrics mean.  I’ve looked it up.  Some say it’s Kurt’s goodbye before his suicide.  Some say it’s about his marriage to Courtney Love, and how he was upset at himself for getting her hooked on drugs.  But apparently the lyrics were written way before he met Love, and contemplated suicide.

So, what then?  When he says “All Apologies,” is he wanting to apologize for being a disappointment to someone?  Is he apologizing to his fans for not being who they want him to be?     Or, for being a disappointment to himself?    Or doubting the worth of himself as a new grunge superstar, and expressing remorse for the general, inexplicable feeling of malaise he couldn’t shake even though he had all of this external success?  As in: I’m sorry, people, you think I’m something so special, but I’m not.  I’m a normal, messed up guy.  And I’m sorry you’re fooling yourself by thinking otherwise.

Then these lyrics:



What now?  Does he mean that marriage leads to the feeling of suffocation and being dead inside?   Seems unlikely, since years after the lyrics were written, he dedicated this song to his wife and young daughter. Or do these lines mean that the time span between married life, and death (being buried) will seem short.  And compressed.  Because marriage is entertaining.  And adventurous.  And distracting.   And as real as a dirt nap.  Is he confused, or calm?  Defiant or accepting?




The lyrics trigger memories of that time with my ex.   And not just in the obvious way I could compare the two:   the suffocation of my self and my needs, and my apologetic stance mixing with the lyrics about apologies and acceptance of blame.   Or in a wishful thinking kind of way, in that wouldn’t it be Just-Like-So-Totally-Super-Awesome! to bond with Kurt Cobain over our similar life challenges.

Because all that sounds good and possible but feels false.  Because I can hear—or think I hear–Kurt’s active suffocation in the lyrics—but it’s suffocation at the hands of himself.   And I also hear contempt.  For taking himself too seriously.   For others taking him too seriously.  For allowing himself to indulgently overthink things and for audaciously trying to single-handedly decipher the complexity of the world, and emotions, and intention through song.

And I know that all the overthinking I’m doing trying to figure it all out–all the analysis of the meaning behind the lyrics–is BS.   ‘Cause I’m Gen X, and we share—Kurt and I—this mutually compatible, angst-ridden self-consciousness.   We share a need to ridicule ourselves because we hate the intentional seriousness of it all.   (We’re a bit jaded because we saw how “Free Love” and “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” morphed into BMW’s and second homes in Carmel).

Maybe the lyrics mean nothing.   ‘Cause Kurt isn’t anything like my bossy, control freak ex-husband.  He knew enough about life—and it’s temptations and humanity’s collective desire for “easy”–not to offer his fans—like me–clear demands on what to think and how to feel.   By making his lyrics so hard to interpret, he addresses the impossible complexity of life.  And somehow says it all without saying anything.     “Everything in life is open to interpretation depending on how deep in the muck you’re standing.”

And so, anyways, it’s BS.   My mental journey for what Kurt meant.   Because I’m aware that my efforts at finding “The Answer” to the riddle of what Kurt is trying to say belies an emotional neediness that–in marriages and in life–can never, ever be pacified.   And I know now that it’s best to part ways with the extreme desire for external validation long before you’re on your hands and knees frantically hot gluing carpet back together.

Each time I listen to this song, I eventually find myself in this same spot. In the murky waters that prevent easy “answers.”  At which point, I end up just enjoying the way the song makes me feel in the moment.  Free of definitive meaning.  Free from thinking any particular thing.  And wrapping up life lessons into convenient, labeled file folders.   Free to have my interpretations change as I change.   Free to pacify myself with “Whatever” once again.



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